You’re rolling down the interstate and you see a car broken down on the side of the road. A stranger is waving and trying to get some help.
What do you do?
If you’re like most people in this situation, you drive on. You feel a little bad about yourself for a second, but then you remind yourself that someone else will come along to help the stranger.
You didn’t ignore the stranger’s call for help because you were emotionally callous. You didn’t ignore them because you lack concern for the lives of others. Your post-hoc justification for inaction may have had something to do with the bystander effect, but we still have to account for the fact that you don’t consider yourself the “one” who will come along to help.
I would suggest that the failure to act in these situations isn’t a shortage of compassion – it’s a shortage of courage. We all hate suffering, but we’re almost too afraid to face on our own suffering on our best days. We really don’t want to confront suffering in the faces of other people.
Whenever you go to a stranger’s aid, you’re going blind into an unknown situation and taking responsibility for sorting it out. You don’t know what it will take to help the stranger. You don’t know the stranger. You don’t know what new challenges or problems that stranger will introduce you to. You don’t know if they will be angry with you, indifferent to you, or threatening to you. You don’t know if you will succeed or fail, or what blame will be attached to you if you do fail.
You take quite a lot of chances when you reach out to help a stranger. It’s no wonder charity requires courage. The most generous person will ignore suffering without it.
The Good Samaritan parable of Luke 10:30-36 is the classic example of what it takes and what it looks like to “love your neighbor as yourself”:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
We don’t have reason to think that the priest and Levite who passed the robbed, wounded man on the road to Jericho were jerks. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they weren’t just being callous.
What reasons did they have to be afraid of helping? Plenty. They could be attacked by robbers themselves, or they could be accused of harming the man and come into trouble with the Roman authorities. They could be unprepared to help the man, or they could be untrained in first aid and afraid to fail.
These are reasonable fears. The Levite and the priest found them too great to help a dying man right in front of them. The Samaritan – who had the additional fear associated with being a racial outcast – did not let fear stop him from acting.
Luckily for us, we can – like the Samaritan – develop the courage that will allow us to be agents of charity in the world. We can cultivate the courage for larger deeds with smaller acts of kindness to strangers. We can prepare ourselves for the tasks of helping others through training – whether it’s first aid or knowing how to change a tire. We can set aside resources with which we can be freely generous. We can learn self-esteem, and we can learn how not to fear the strangers all around us.
If we put in the work in these small things, we will be ready. When the moment comes, we will refuse to let some mild fear or social anxiety keep us from living out our values. We can be ready to exercise courage when charity calls for it.