The Bystander 25-October-2009
The Bystander 25-October-2009
I know this is too long and it probably isn't going to make much sense to anyone but me, but this has been swimming around in my head for a couple of weeks and I needed to put some order to it. For what it's worth I have about 100 of these discussions going on inside my head at any given moment, so if nothing else this story is a good representation of what's going on in my head even if it appears that I'm in a coma. And is probably why I never sleep.
We rarely get to decide when any given place or time is the right or wrong place at the appropriate time. And regardless, we have to play the hand we're dealt. And sometimes we are dealt a really bad hand in a game with very high stakes. Unfortunately, in life, we can't fold.
In poker though all you lose is stuff, and even if you're playing for stakes greater than cash, you know that before you sit down to play... It's a choice. When you're in the middle of a traffic accident, you do your best to keep yourself and others safe and you help until the professionals get there. The police do the paperwork, the ambulance does the medical work, and the tow truck driver carries off the scraps. It's all very tidy. Life just isn't like that.
In a moral crisis, there is no 911. It's all you, and it's not a single event like a traffic accident or a few hands of poker. If you happened to be a bystander that witnessed a traffic accident, and you just stood and watched without lending help, it all still works out about the same in the end. Someone else will call 911, the police will still get there. Everyone knows the way to the hospital. Maybe you had your kids with you and didn't want to put them in harm's way by stepping in. Maybe you were just scared and didn't know what to do. There are lots of reasons you might not act.
In a moral crisis though, the affects of you acting or not acting will define you, and those affects will cascade through time good or bad. There is no pause button so you can stop and think things over, you can't fold, and you can't dial 911. If you act you may lose everything and if you don't act you may lose everything. And often, by choosing to not contribute to the solution of the problem, you become part of the problem itself. And even though you may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, history will remember you for what you did or didn't do. I think people assume that by doing nothing they've dodged the spotlight.
I think that too often people focus on the outcome. They think, "Well I can step up and fight this, but it's probably not going to change anyway, so why even try?" And therein lies one of the biggest failings of humanity. The outcome affects only one incident. The fight is what will change the world in the long run. And since most people don't stand up and fight, the world doesn't change. And since the world doesn't change, it keeps getting worse. And it keeps getting worse because that one incident everyone thought they could dodge by doing nothing, actually spread and harmed even more people because nobody wanted to fight.
Since I'm at such a loss to find the right analogy for this story, I'll use wildfire even though in practicality I really don't know much about it. I guess I see the Bystander as the "Unseen Moral Firefighter"... When a wildfire threatens to destroy homes, the firefighter still goes in and gives it his all, even if the odds are insurmountable. And he may go in knowing that the closest 3 houses are doomed anyway, yet fight the fire in order to save the remaining 200 homes that the fire is quickly approaching. He sees the fire as a living, growing entity that has to be stopped. And I'd bet there are times that the firefighter comes out of a wildfire losing part of himself as well as some of his brothers in the fight, only to have the fire eventually put out by a heavy rain. Then was his fight completely in vain? No. It wasn't. Not in my book anyway, and we'd all be puzzled beyond imagination if the firefighters did nothing but stand and watch, hoping for rain.
Yet nobody seems very shocked if the Bystander just... stands by idly. Is it because we don't want to be judged if one day we stand by and do nothing? Is it because we don't see the moral wildfire that spreads each time the Bystanders do nothing? I really don't know. There are lots of things I don't know.
But I wrote this all out because I've been struggling with what to teach my kids, and sometimes it helps to just sit down and write. Sometimes it doesn't. And I think that what I've learned by writing this is that in a moral crisis, doing nothing may be just as much a crime as the initial crisis itself. And it may seem completely pointless to put up a fight anyway, since the outcome seems concrete no matter what you do or don't do.
But while the fight may not change the outcome of the crisis, and history may see you as the fool that died because he stood his ground in the face of an unstoppable wildfire... what matters more than any of that is how you feel about *yourself* when you're looking back at the devastation the wildfire did after it's all said and done. The houses may all be lost in spite of your fight, the fight may have taken good men and women, and maybe this fire truly was unstoppable.
But none of that devastation happened because I sat back and did nothing. The devastation looks the same from the air regardless of how hard I fought it, but the fact that I fought it is what will let me make peace with the devastation. Even though the outcome of that one event was still the same. I may not have changed it... but it didn't change me either.
So while history will record the final outcome of any given single catastrophic event, while recording very few of the details of what happened leading up to the final outcome... the true test that life was handing us was what took place inside the Bystander that stood by compared to what took place inside the one that stood his ground and fought unimaginable odds.
And I guess what I want my kids to know is that I really don't care about the outcome of their battles so much as how they feel about how they fought the battle. If you feel like you did the right thing and that you did all you could to change the outcome, yet the outcome was the same in the end... you still passed a critical test that life handed you.
Life is more often likely to test your character than your fighting skills. So even if you don't swing a killer right hook, you passed the test the moment you balled up your fist, even if you didn't knock anyone on their ass when you swung it.
And similarly... if you choose to look away in the face of a moral crisis, you have not only failed the test of character, but you have doomed many others after you to becoming engulfed in the wildfire that you didn't fight.
But once you've seen it unfold, you're in it no matter which path you take. Ignoring it doesn't free you from the responsibility of it, and even if you happened into it by no fault or choosing of your own, you're still in it.
Cheers from ThreeFiveZero
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