A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

The Good Samaritan Who Wasn’t: The Power of Context over Our Compassion

Good samaritanIt was during our most recent travel to the States that I stood at a gas station in Arkansas, with an ear to the glugging into my tank and an eye to the climbing digital numbers of my total. I was also attempting not to look at the car parked two lanes over, whose car alarm honked petulantly, heedless to the fact that its owner was also its alleged perpetrator: Impostor!

I didn’t want to embarrass her. Poor thing. It didn’t help matters that her lapdogs went bananas behind the glass every time the alarm protested its would-be attacker’s vulgar atrocities.

It was my oldest son, though, who climbed out of the car. Blonde, blue-eyed, and nearly eleven, he spoke in a low voice so that I inclined my head.

“Mom,” he asked, “shouldn’t we help her?”

My eyebrows pulled upwards. “Well, I don’t know. I was wondering, but most of the time there’s nothing you can do. It looks like her keys are locked in the car, and I can’t really help with that. I’m just trying not to add to her embarrassment.”

“Yeah, but…” here, he paused. “Shouldn’t we ask?”

Now I was the one feeling slightly embarrassed, but with a curious hybrid of awe. This was part of the hopes I sheltered in the quiet corners of my heart, raising my kids in Africa: that they would somehow have compassion kneaded into the makings of their DNA. And yet, I was always surprised when it showed up. “Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. Maybe she doesn’t have her cell phone.”

He walked over amidst the car’s heated declarations; spoke in the woman’s ear. After conversing with her, I watched him slide his arm through the narrow gap of the backseat’s cracked window…and unlock the car. It is difficult to describe to you the expression of gratitude that lighted this woman’s face. She grabbed the keys, clambered to the front seat, and the parking lot and maddened canines fell into palpable silence.

She came over to express her gratitude, to lay a weary arm around his shoulder in effusive relief and thanks. And I?

I was proud of my son.

As I pulled our loaner into gear, rivaling my delight in his growing character were the questions of my own. Here in Uganda, need is everywhere. I’m also here to help. Even two weeks ago, a short-termer headed back to the U.S. remarked how his eyes, and his heart, canvassed for need here in the developing world as if it were a sixth sense: How can I help? Please tell me I can do something. Then he looked at my husband and I. “Why am I not like that at home?”

There at the American gas station, I, too had made the subtle shift–my concern with the woman’s dignity smothering the inquisitiveness of what I could actually do.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his intriguing book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, writes of a fascinating study conducted of seminarians at Princeton Theological. First, they were given a survey on their reasons for studying theology: for personal and spiritual fulfillment? As a practical tool for meaning in everyday life? They then were asked to prepare a brief talk: some on the relevance of professional clergy, some on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, some were given different instructions. To some, the experimenter would say, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.” And to others, “It will be a few minute before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over now.”

Along the way to the presentation, the seminarians all encountered the same dilemma: “a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was, who would stop and help?”

Gladwell notes that when people predicted where seminarians would stop, answers were quite homogenous: The students entering the clergy to help people and having just prepared a talk on the Good Samaritan would be the most likely to stop.

But Darley and Batson, the experimenters, concluded that thinking about the Good Samaritan “did not significantly increase helping behavior…Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”

Gladwell states that

The only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Of the group that was, 10 percent stopped to help. Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63 percent stopped…The words ‘Oh, you’re late’ had the effect of making someone who was ordinarily compassionate into someone who was indifferent to suffering—of turning someone, in that particular moment, into a different person. (emphasis added)

Gladwell argues that at that juncture, the immediate context of the situation actually had more power than the person’s convictions.

And, thinking of my own actions—er, inaction—at the gas station, I have to agree with him. In my ability to tangibly love others, I am fascinated, perhaps horrified, by how my state of mind carries the power to trump my deepest-held principles. Martha did this, right? The lens of her mind’s eye so zoomed in on her task that she missed the Focus of all tasks.

Yes, this does influence my skepticism over the acceleration of the pace of life in our Western countries, the gas pedal flattened by urgent and real-time technologies. But more than anything, humble knowledge of this flares my eyes open to how my context can level my convictions.

In my rush to do the actions of love, will I miss loving?

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  1. What a neat story and you should be so proud of Baden…..and so well written…..you are AWESOME……..

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