Posted by: Dan | June 1, 2007

Reflecting on Responses to the "What would you do?" Series

Over the last few months I’ve posted five different scenarios that I have (somewhat unexpectedly) encountered here in Vancouver, and I have asked my friends here what they would do if they were in those situations. Briefly restated, these were the scenarios I mentioned:

(1) sitting by drunken frat boys on the bus who were talking about raping women;
(2) giving a lighter to somebody, only to realise that he was using it to light a crack pipe;
(3) pursuing a street-involved fellow who assaulted a young woman on the bus;
(4) finding the unconscious body of a sex worker in the gutter on my way to work;
(5) being present when a man struck a woman in the face in an argument on the street.

As I was thinking about, and rereading, the various responses I have received, I was struck by two things.

First, I realised that almost all of us were operating with the assumption that something should be done. The reason why I found this so striking was because of the amount of encounters that we have where we assume that nothing should be done, where we don’t even think about doing anything. I mean, what if I changed the scenarios a little bit. What if I related these scenarios:

(A) I was walking downtown at night and I saw somebody sleeping in a doorway, slowly getting soaked by the rain;
(B) I was walking by the park and I saw a woman covered with sores, tweaking out, and yelling at nothing.

Ask the question, “What would you do?” in relation to these scenarios and the answer would be a resounding, “Nothing” (at least if we are being honest). We’ve all seen people sleeping on the street, we’ve all encountered junkies — they’re just part of life in North American urban centres. None of us would even think, “Hey, maybe I should be doing something about this.” Ani DiFranco, sums this point up rather well in her song “Subdivision”:

I remember the first time I saw someone lying on the cold street
I thought, “I can’t just walk past you, this can’t just be true.”
But I learned by example to just keep moving my feet.
It’s amazing the things that we all learn to do.

The only reason that we think, “Hey, maybe we should do something” in relation to the five scenarios I’ve presented is because we haven’t become accustomed to such encounters in the way that we’ve been accustomed to seeing somebody sleeping outside, or seeing somebody tweaking out.

I realised this when I was thinking about the last scenario I mentioned — the scenario where the fellow hit his partner in the face. You see, almost nobody from my neighbourhood would have done anything in that situation; that sort of sudden, brief, and not very extreme, violence is normal in my neighbourhood. People here walk by a smack the same way that us suburban folks walk by a fellow sleeping on a grate.

The challenge for us is how to avoid becoming accustomed to situations of violence and dehumanisation. The challenge isn’t just having the courage to take action in the scenarios that I encountered; the challenge is to begin to question things that we have become accustomed to, asking ourselves, “hey, wait a minute, why am I not doing anything here?”

The second thing that struck me about the answers people gave to the scenarios I presented, was the amount of people that said that they would respond by “praying.” The reason why this struck me was because, as I reflected back on how I had responded to each event, I don’t think I prayed in any of them. I know praying is the real good Christian answer to all things, but I’ll tell you this much: in my experience, I have yet to see such prayer-in-the-moment make any difference whatsoever. Such prayers are like the prayers that children pray when their grandparents are dying: “Dear God, please don’t let Grandpa die.” But, of course, Grandpa does die. If all we’re doing is offering up a quick prayer-in-the-moment then I’d almost be inclined to say don’t bother because such prayers are almost always meaningless, so let’s not fool ourselves into some sort of sense of false comfort — i.e. I’ve prayed, so I’ve doing something meaningful and can now move on feeling good about myself (note that my emphasis here is upon one time prayers-of-the-moment, and not upon ongoing intercession).

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