I feel like every day there’s a news story about someone who was harmed in the middle of a busy street, on a metro car, or at a crowded mall. When I was younger, I was certain I’d act in those situations. I thought I would definitely be the person to help. Today, when I read those stories, I still wonder why no one stepped up, spoke out, or helped. In a flash of judgment, I think about how weak those people must have been—to see harm and not act. Then I remember that time I didn’t.
I was a freshmen in college, with barely enough time away from home to call it more than a vacation. I was walking through the library stairwell for an evening of studying, probably on my way to get a book I couldn’t afford to buy. After climbing a couple flights, I saw a boy standing in the corner of the landing. He had his back to me. I could hear him speaking, but I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying. It took me a minute to realize there was someone else there.
A tiny girl was backed into the same corner, looking up with wide eyes at the boy. I can’t remember the words that were coming out of his mouth. I can’t remember what he looked like. But I remember how small she seemed and that look of half-fear, half-defeat in her eyes. I remember the heated anger in his voice. I remember feeling in my gut that she wasn’t ok.
I froze. I looked at her for a few seconds, but she didn’t look back. Then I stared down at the ground and kept walking.
That moment, the moment when I did nothing, sits with me. Even now, I remember feeling stunned by the situation—programmed to mind my own business. I wasn’t scared, I just robotically moved along. Something inside compelled me forward before I could act. So I understand why people don’t. I let the harsh memory of those ten seconds slip into my mind when I feel judgmental. Most of us are conditioned to not intervene, to keep to ourselves. It’s hard to ignore that, but it’s possible.
The time I did nothing—not even look into the girl’s eyes and ask her if she was ok—serves as a shameful reminder of the need to just do something, anything to support one another. It’s helped me have mildly uncomfortable confrontations with strangers, reach out to assist friends even when they can’t ask, and intervene in some sticky bar-related situations involving girls who needed a sober friend. I know I’m not the only one. I have friends who are always opening their wallets for strangers. I read stories about heroes rescuing children from the sea. I’ve seen women force a harasser off a city bus. All of these people inspire me to be better, to overlook the social conditioning that tells me to slide away quietly, and to simply help.
Plus, the best way to be bold is in a way that makes the world a better place. It gives you strength to be courageous in all ways. If you can boldly step up to save a person some pain, you can boldly step up to be yourself. If you’re brave enough to intervene in a stranger’s life to improve it, you just might be brave enough to make your own life better. First step, help a friend. Second step, help a stranger. Third step, neon jumpsuit.