Sunday, February 10, 2008

Busybody or Samaritan?

There is only one thing about winter that I enjoy: the opportunity to push cars out of snowbanks. As a pedestrian I am often in the position to help people get their vehicles unstuck, and this winter has been particularly fruitful.

Why do I enjoy doing this? Because I like the way social barriers fall down when the weather gets bad. Have you noticed? Strangers smile and say hello to you on the street, because everybody is united in a common struggle, and it makes us realize how much we depend on each other. Just the fact that we have a common difficulty is enough to make us worthwhile in other people's eyes.

So I'm thrilled when I see a few people trying to get their car out of a snowbank. It's a chance to have a quick, easy social interaction with strangers that I'll never see again. It makes me happy to help and it seems to make them happy in return.

But on Saturday I began to wonder if I've stopped being "helpful" and started being "a busybody."

On the way home from Conestoga Mall the bus broke down, because the middle door had gotten jammed with snow and it wouldn't close. The bus driver -- obviously not a very handy guy -- just kept coming back and kicking the snow around, basically packing it all in tighter until the door was permanently stuck.

Meanwhile, us passengers sat there and watched him. I felt I could do a better job of fixing the door, and I could see that a few others felt that way as well. But did any of us have a RIGHT to step up and offer assistance?

Well, I did. I dug around in the snow and slush and grease while people just sat and stared at me, and as I was doing this -- and as it became more apparent that the door was simply busted -- I saw myself through the eyes of those bored, anxious passengers: they thought I was a nosy busybody, somebody who gets involved just to feel important and to get into the public spotlight, hoping to be the hero who fixes the bus and gets everybody home on time.

I couldn't deny this entirely, and coupled with the fact that I was sticking my fingers into places where they could suddenly be chopped off, I gathered up my bags and decided to walk home instead. I began to wonder what my motivations are for pushing cars out of ditches, and rescuing animals at work, and helping out in the Club Abstract coatroom when I'm not really needed.

Like every motivation, I don't think my -- or anybody's -- samaritan impulses are cut-and-dried, but the subconscious stuff is unimportant anyway. By the time I reached my home on Saturday I'd realized that people will ascribe motivations for your actions according to their own prejudices, regardless of why you think you're doing it.

There used to be a guy in New Hamburg who may parents called "Ranger Rick." He was an elderly man who spent all day walking around town, watching everything that was going on and asking everybody about their lives. My family made fun of this because we were private people who didn't want attention from others, but now -- for the first time -- I realize that Rick might not have been simply nosy...maybe he cared about people? Maybe he loved the town and was interested in what was happening in it?

I think that Rick's behaviour was due to a mix of things, and some of them weren't noble (boredom, nosiness, social difficulties). But now I realize that I looked at him the same way the people on the bus were looking at me.

No dramatic conclusion, just a thought, and something I need to keep in mind...both when I'm thinking about helping others, and when others help me.


Adrian said...

I personally believe, as I suspect you do, that there is no truly 'altruistic' people out there, everyone needs a motivator, even Mother Theresa.

But there is a rationale, that I personally subscribe to, that might make you feel better:

To illustrate, think of a recent morning where your first interaction with another person was negative. What was your mindset with the next person you came across? Did you transfer any of your anger at the first person to this new 'innocent' person? While I pride myself in my ability to dissociate the two events, it does actually take a conscious effort to overcome the natural emotional urge to transfer the feelings. I suspect you can think of a similar situation in your life where the emotional side held sway.

What you are doing is contributing to the opposite dynamic, which also works, sadly not as effectively. If you take a little bit of time out of your day to show consideration to others, it tends to propagate.

So the way I rationalize this to myself is... you may never get 'repaid' by that person you helped push out of the snow bank, but they might be nice to someone else, who is nice to someone else, who you interact with in your day. Or maybe not...

Another explanation is that there is balance in the universe, someone has to be nice to balance all the dick-heads out there!

Anonymous said...

Before the days of landlines in everyone's house, in the days of a single black and white TV channel running from 7PM to 11PM only), in short, in my childhood, it was CUSTOMARY if your father were going to a different city for your neighbours(and not just immediate neighbours, I am talking about residents of the entire stree) to hand him the address of their relative living in that particular town. And you JUST dropped him on him, without a phonecall or letter and theye would be happy to see you and stand you a good dinner. :-)

Nowadays we are so busy ...

Adam Thornton said...

I do agree, Adrian, that there must always be a motivator; just a feeling of pride, happiness, or accomplishment is enough to make us act altruistically. If helping people always made us feel crushingly depressed -- and if we didn't sometimes ENJOY being that depressed -- we'd never help people.

And your point about mindsets is a great one. Unfortunately I find that I'm most generous when I'm feeling a little sad, and most selfish when I'm confidently happy (though not always).

Hopefully happiness DOES propagate, and I also hope that the universe does everything possible to balance out the dick-heads! :)

Adam Thornton said...

JJ, and did anybody RESENT that practice? Were there people who said "Jeez, I hope JJ's dad doesn't go bugging my mother-in-law if he needs help"?

Kimber said...

Just please, please, please - I beg you - don't refer to these little kindnesses as "paying it forward." That term sets my teeth on edge, particularly after watching the gawdawful movie of the same name.

Adrian said...

Just please, please, please - I beg you - don't refer to these little kindnesses as "paying it forward." That term sets my teeth on edge, particularly after watching the gawdawful movie of the same name.

Phew! Almost did, but decided it was too cheesy, and not really what I was going for.

Key difference (in my rationale), is that there is no expectation of anyone else being obligated to do anything or behave differently.


Kimber said...

A, you've got it exactly. (And thanks for not calling it "random acts of kindness" either)

Kimber said...

A, you've got it exactly. (And thanks for not calling it "random acts of kindness" either)

Adam Thornton said...

Goodness. I was forced to watch bits and pieces of that movie (without sound, fortunately), and it just about drove me over the edge.

Then, when I bought my last DVD player, what did I find inside the box? They gave me a free copy of "Pay It Forward!"

It is in a landfill.

Anonymous said...

I personally find that making myself useful, helping other folks get on with their day helps to subvert feelings of inadequacy or hopelessness that overcome me from time to time. I may not be as successful as I might like, but being helpful is a decent tradeoff, I think.

Adam Thornton said...

Yes, those feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness can sometimes spur us to POSITIVE action!

Or to alcoholism, maybe.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I lied somewhat to simplify what was already a complicated run-on sentence. :)

Basically, WE moved away and our old neighbours would drop in on us. :)

But the phenonmenon as reported existed and was taken as natural.

Anonymous said...

I think Scott nailed it. We need to feel needed and helping others addresses that need. But I would like to think that we would still go out and help even when our "normal" work already gives us that sense of power and accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Well really, by now it's just habit. One of my few good ones, truth be told. Sigh.

tanzi said...

This was a beautiful blog, Muffy. You honestly state what many of us feel so often: are there more self-involved reasons for us helping others than we hope? I think your're truly kind, dammit. So don't worry about over-analysis. It's not like you were looking for accolades. Besides, despite any potential sub-conscious motives you were still taking action...more than the judgmental knobs sitting on the bus can say. They were more likely to afraid to help b/c they'd feel embarrassed.
Cheers to you, Samaritan!

Adam Thornton said...

True, Tanzi, there's something to be said for taking action even when you know you'll be rebuffed or ridiculed.

My plan is to not change what I'm doing...but I also want to make sure I don't "revel in tragedy," just because I want to be part of something.

You know, like those people who go to the sites of school shootings to "commiserate" but instead just hope they'll get on camera.