There are events which occur in life where the contemplation around their true meaning is enough leave our consciences in a state of upheaval. The accounts of heroism and bravery amid the tragedy of 9/11 come immediately to mind. The numerous actions of rescue personnel and random citizens who sacrificed their own lives to save those of complete strangers force me to ask if I have even a fraction of that courage and self sacrifice.
Then too I try and envision the victims trapped in those burning buildings as they came to grips with the hopelessness of their circumstances and the reality they faced – remain trapped or jump. With both means producing the same certain end, how did they rationalize one over the other? What went through their minds as they settled on an answer? Were they horrified as the inevitable approached or did they face the end calm and resolute?
As I think on these things I’m left with no alternative but to ask myself ‘What would I have done?’ and then question my very character as a man when I am disappointed in the answer I receive. Because doing so accentuates the chasm between what I am and what I claim to be.
Over a decade later I still shutter at those thoughts, yet I believe it’s an important soul cleansing exercise. To begin with it chips away at my callous heart beaten numb by this flippant world where death and loss lead every newscast. Second, I’m driven to a new appreciation for my current well being when our land of milk and honey allows us to take it all for granted. And third, it immediately shuts down any criticism I may have as my arrogance and self-righteousness whither in the shadow of this convulsion of conscience.
Late last week another tragic event had a similar effect and reminded me again of that great divide within me. The incident involved a homeless man charged and finally arrested for purposefully pushing a fellow pedestrian off the platform on the 49th train station in New York City. This is said to be a New Yorker’s worst nightmare and I’ve been in enough train stations to understand why. The 58-year-old Ki Suck Han struggled by some estimates for 1-2 minutes trying to climb back off the tracks before succumbing to the onrushing train and later dying at the hospital.
Murder in and of itself is so recurrent in our culture it’s barely considered newsworthy anymore and this is especially so in the city that never sleeps, however Mr. Han’s death reinvigorated a discussion, in the most unpredictable of ways, of what I consider an even greater injustice.
This flash paper was sparked from the following morning’s front page of the New York Post:
Once readers’ move beyond those shocking words, the image in the background is sufficient to take the breath away. In a world of Photoshop and special effects where reality is repeatedly called into question this image garners an altogether different reaction. In light of the corresponding story one question quickly surfaces in the minds of most “Why didn’t the photographer help the man!?”
As legitimate as that question may be, what’s just as distressing is that no other passenger seemed bothered to aid Mr. Han either – there’s no one else in the picture. At this point it would be easy to throw stones questioning the humanity of everyone on that platform – why did they not bother to help him? But when I consider what I might have done had I been there to witness this tragic event my conscience leads me to throw the stones on the ground.
Most of us have this false notion that we’re more gallant and altruistic than we really are. As we sit nestled in our protective cocoons we find it easy to cast doubt on the morality of each of those passengers who watched this man die. We quickly question their goodness all the while failing to give full consideration to the goodness or lack thereof within our own hearts.
Where this misconception comes from I don’t know. Maybe intent is what really matters. Is my desire to help all that’s needed to be courageous? Or because I’ve assisted a few stranded motorists’ jump start their cars does that imply I’m noble and brave? Unfortunately this means little after I stop to consider what my first reaction may been on that fateful day.
Would I have instinctively rushed to assist with no afterthought to the personal risks? Would I have thrown myself into certain harm’s way to help a stranger in need? Or would I have assumed, like I usually do when someone’s stranded on the roadside, that help is already on the way and they don’t need mine? Or presume that they were vicious serial killers bent on finding their next victim and then feel proud of myself that I’m so sensible?
Sadly I’m compelled to admit that I would likely have done little more than the photographer or his fellow passengers. I want to say that I would have jeopardized my own life for the the sake of his, but I can’t. I’m still living in the gap of who I am and who I want to be and what honor I may possess doesn’t eclipse my fears or the selfish belief that I’m vastly more important alive than a man facing death on the train tracks. I would have likely stood there in stunned amazement watching that train bear down on him. And much like the others spent the rest of my life medicating the guilt convincing myself there was nothing I could have done.
My heart goes out to the family of Mr. Sun and their tragic loss. But I can’t help but feel more pity for the others in that station – those who chose do to nothing. Do they question their own humanity? Are they depressed, ashamed, or angry? And if given a second chance would they acted differently? Only God knows what their souls must be struggling with today as they deal with these questions.
We all live in the space between who we are and who we claim to be, for some that expanse is larger than others, and not a one of us, starting with myself, can say with any shred of honesty what we would have done had we been there. So before I call into question the dignity of those who did nothing, it’s best I search within my own heart for the answer ‘What would I have done?’ – then pray that I never have the opportunity to find out.