I was listening to the lyrics in Nickelback's latest song "When We Stand Together" and it got me to thinking about the ways of the world. Nickelback, one of the most popular alternative rock bands of the 21st century, is pointing out the ills of cultural apathy and how things can get better when people take action. While the beat is powerful and the lyrics are very compelling, it got me to thinking about why people do or don't take action.
It's a given that when danger befalls someone in a crowd, the majority of people won't intervene to help. The tragic death of the toddler who was twice struck by automobiles in China is but one example of this. Most passersby saw the injured child but did nothing for her, but then one brave soul came forward to help. The child later died of her injuries and afterwards people reportedly took to the internet wringing their hands, casting blame and wondering how such a tragedy could have occured.
In the late 1980s Phil Collins sung about the phenomenon in "Another Day In Paradise" with the lyrics
She calls out to the man on the street "Sir, can you help me? It's cold and I've nowhere to sleep, is there somewhere you can tell me?" He walks on, doesn't look back. He pretends he can't hear her. He starts to whistle as he crosses the street, he's embarrased to be there.
The tragedy in China and the lyrics in Phil Collins' song are very reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story a man was beaten, robbed and left for dead. People passed the injured man, looked at him and kept on going about their business. Finally, someone did help. A man whom was considered by others to be of lowly stature, knelt down to help the injured man, taking him to an inn and even paying for his stay and medical care.
Social and behavioral scientists refer to this behavior as diffusion of responsibility. In a nutshell, it's very hard for someone to get help from the crowd, because the majority of people will pass the responsibility to others. By diffusing the responsibility, it gives each person in the crowd a protective shield with which they can assuage their guilt.
(photo by Ben Schumin posted on wikipedia)
But that's just one explanation for inaction. Selfishness and fear are driving forces behind much of the problems in the world. People with abundant resources may be deluded into thinking that they don't need to get involved, that those who suffer actually deserve what's happening to them. Selfish people are very judgmental.
Then you have the fearful group. These folks may be so afraid of losing what they have that they won't do anything to help others. To some this position seems understandable; afterall, why should you stick your neck out for someone else when it could be chopped off (some may think of it as no good deed goes unpunished).
Fortunately, people can call upon the Holy Spirit to empower them to help others. In fact compassion and gentleness which are bestowed by the Spirit are also very powerful motivators, even moreso than fear and selfishness which are found within the hearts of humans.
When it boils down to it, people live according to their beliefs. When we see the less fortunate, we act or don't act based on the principles upon which we stand.
As we enter into this season of thanksgiving, warm wishes and gift giving, take a moment to reflect on what you stand for.
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