For a long time I essayed to convince myself that I’m an upstander in a world severely populated by bystanders. Our culture is one of silent observation and almost no intervention. I’ve no doubt there are people who wouldn’t hesitate to jump into the arms of danger to divert a possible calamity, and, more importantly, to prevent a death. I wonder, would I expose myself to danger to save someone else? Would I die for another? The answer came rapidly, without hesitation: Yes, I would.
It is neither a sense of guilty nor a desire for recognition that drives me; it’s about doing what’s right. A few weeks ago, as I waited to cross the street, I noticed a woman looking out a car window. Anger with a hint of resignation were visible on her small face. Suddenly, she looked up and pinned her gaze on me. Remembering that it is rude to stare, I pretended to be lost in thought. I quickly realized, however, that she wasn’t looking at anyone in particular–she was, unlike me, unaware of her surroundings. I squinted against the blinding glare of the sun, walked on past her, and momentarily forgot about the episode. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d failed to notice the man sitting across from her. As I hurried across the street, I heard agitated voices floating out of the car. I looked over my shoulder at the man turning toward the woman. His voice rose above hers. The urge to wheel around and confront him swelled in me, but the voice of reason (in the likeness of Mom) reeled off a list of potential scenarios, the majority of them involved someone–in this case, me–getting shot. The voice of reason (hello, Mother) suggested a possible alternative: dial 911. But what if the man had hit the woman? What would I have done? “There’s no question about it,” she said. “You call the police.”
I had a college professor who encouraged her students to leave their mark in small, yet equally significant, ways. Whether we witness an instance of domestic violence or playground bullying, it is our duty to say something about it and leave a mark on someone else’s life. Choosing to remain silent is another way of indirectly condoning an aggression; it’s another way of saying, I’m okay with it. We must not, however, rule out the possibility that the victim may come to the defense of the abuser (it could open up a mess of legal issues usually involving the upstander.). This is, of course, a response to fear and misplaced loyalty.
But why are some many of us afraid to be upstanders? The question suggests its own answer: fear.
We are afraid to intervene lest the perpetrator shifts his aggression on us. But that’s not all. Intervention, as writer Susan Metcalfe remarked, is “…going against the current of our ‘keep to ourselves’ culture and battling entrenched resistances to crossing the line between private and public.” We refrain from involvement because it would force us to thrust ourselves into a situation that does not “concern” us.
The truth is that we live in a spiritually interconnected world. When a tragedy befalls one of us, it affects us all to a certain degree. Emmanuel Levinas believed in the face of the Other. He asserted that we are infinitely responsible for the people we encounter directly, face to face, every day. “The face of the Other,” he said, “is destitute; it is the poor for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all. And me, whoever I may be, but as a ‘first person,’ I am he who finds the resources to respond to the call.” In short, the face of the Other is exposed and vulnerable, just like victims of aggression, often suffering the agony of silence.