I heard a news report the other day about a Good Samaritan who had stopped at an accident scene to help one of the victims to safety. The story was an interesting and moving one, the kind of “everyman” story which tends to fill us with hope that, confronted with the same circumstances, maybe we could act heroically, too. Better yet, the story had a happy outcome, as the accident victim survived in part due to the rescuer’s efforts. When he was interviewed after the rescue, the man was asked what had motivated him to intervene and thus endanger himself in the process. He replied that he had acted “by instinct,” and that it was something that anyone might have done.
I’ve thought about those comments quite a lot since I heard them, because I’m not sure that I understand them. Never having faced such dire circumstances before, I can’t really say for certain what my instinctive reactions would be. I’d like to think that they would be brave and selfless, but I can’t know that they would be. None of us can. It made me wonder about where such instinct comes from, and what that may say about us (or raise questions about us) as a species.
If imminent danger triggers some sort of selfless response in us, then there must be some intrinsic force within our psyches that testifies to the importance, the sanctity, of human life. That force might come from a religious source in some, but certainly not all heroes are religious people. So there is some other inherent belief that we hold which affirms the idea that a human life is worth the ultimate risk of our own lives, some standard of importance that drives our behaviors. Psychologists can likely expound upon the sources for such human altruism; I’m just glad and amazed that it’s apparently somewhere deep within us.
My acceptance of altruism as a motive posed another, perhaps more difficult question: if such motives come from somewhere deep within us, why do some circumstances lead us to act and others do not? The quick actions of the man in the news story likely saved a life. Yet I’d be shocked to learn that he has spent his life performing such acts of rescue, or even that he had experienced one other such feat of heroism. Since the world is filled with cultures and peoples who exist at the very precipice of their demise, it begs the question as to why most of us are dulled to action when it might matter so deeply and to so many. Perhaps it’s the distance between us, the fact that we are in the one instance “on the scene” and in the other case so seemingly removed from the victims’ predicament. Next door versus Nicaragua or Bangladesh. Yet, our assistance is available in both cases. What is there within us that ignites us to action for the one but fails to charge the adrenaline for the other? More perplexing, what is there in some of us which denies any feelings of empathy or respect for life? Our instincts would appear to be uneven, inconsistent.
Social scientists can explain all of this readily, I’m sure. But for the everyday man or woman who confronts life in all of its mysteries and inconsistencies each day, the puzzle is a confounding one. We are driven by motives that are often conflicting and indiscernible. We are incredibly bold and loving, while cold and detached. We appear to be willing to risk our very lives to rush a burning building for the sake of a child trapped there, but rather indifferent at the plight of literally millions of children trapped in the consuming flames of poverty, injustice and disease. I wonder how it is that we are able to draw the psychological line between the necessity of the former and the optionality of the latter. How do you?
If it’s true, as the news story rescuer suggests, that we often operate by instinct when it comes to life and death decisions, I need to know for myself which instinct I’m most likely to hear when circumstances come calling….