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One of my core values is the idea of respecting others. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But like many deeply cherished values, it tends to get a bit complicated under intense scrutiny. In fact I have often considered myself a misanthrope, which might seem to be at odds with respecting others.

It’s easy for me to feel respectful in my typical daily routine, because I have the good fortune to be surrounded by people whom I find it easy to respect. For the most part, the people closest to me are not domineering assholes nor extremely needy nor highly dysfunctional. A lot of them are in fact beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, righteous people. I love them, and it’s easy to respect those you love.

If I deviate much from my social comfort zone, however, I’m liable to encounter people where the ideal of mutual respect is much more difficult. Sometimes, such deviations are thrust up unexpectedly, and I have a crisis of conscience.

For example, Friday morning, as I rode to work, I encountered a man who appeared to be sleeping on the bike path.


The reason I started this off by writing about respect is that I realized I do not know how to act respectfully to this man. One might say that he was not treating himself with respect, and therefore not deserving of respect from others. Perhaps there’s some validity to that perspective, but my thoughts don’t tend to run that way. I feel like I should do something, but I don’t know what the respectful course of action might be.

At first glance, it would seem he had too much too drink and was sleeping it off. I don’t know that for a fact, of course. Perhaps he fainted. Perhaps he has a medical condition. Perhaps his life is in danger. At the very least, he’s in danger of being run over by a bicycle, or getting dehydrated under the Louisiana sun. It’s August, after all.

I don’t want to interact with him directly. I don’t have any medical training. I’m on my way to work. What am I going to do, prod him in the ribs? “Hey, buddy, are you OK?” I’m afraid he might be incoherent or surly or even dangerous. Again, he appears to have been engaging in behavior that is so far outside my experience that I’m at a loss. I don’t have the first clue how to approach him.

It would be nice if I could just call on someone else. After all, I live in a society, right? It seems there should be some means of helping people who are in immediate need. But calling the cops is out of the question; he’d likely end up in jail or maybe even worse. Could I call 911 and get a medic on the scene? Are they equipped to deal with this scenario, or are they going to want cops present for their own protection? If he in fact is simply drunk, is he going to be handed off to the police anyhow? I’d assert that someone who drinks to that level of excess needs medical help. Possibly he needs a home. But what are the chances he would get that if I call 911?

I keep envisioning scenarios wherein any intervention actually makes matters worse.

I mentioned I was on my way to work twice already. Maybe that’s the primary factor here. I’m going about my business, usually running a little behind the clock. I don’t want to get into someone else’s business, especially when it looks like it might get messy.

In the end, I did nothing. Well, that’s not quite true. I realized I had my camera, so I turned around and snapped a photo. But I didn’t do anything to help him. When I passed by again he was gone.

What do you do in a situation like this?

Published inNeighborsPix


  1. HammHawk HammHawk

    Because I teach about the research on diffusion of responsibility, etc, I’ve come to realize that I’d feel like an hypocrite if I ignored someone like that (or someone screaming outside, etc) and then discovered that he’d been in real trouble or died. So I usually (not always, mind you) stop and get they’re attention and ask if they’re ok. Every single time, the person’s just been drunk, but at least I was able to tell they didn’t need real help.

    This happens more now that we’re on the cusp of the Quarter. Perhaps part of the reason I feel comfortable doing it is it also tends to get them moving, and I wouldn’t want some guy passed out on my stoop, so that’s a bonus, I guess. But I don’t know the “right” thing to do.

  2. That’s a tough one. You’ve done a good job articulating the reasons NOT to stop and try to “help,” but what compels us to stop in the first place, or even to think about it?

    Do you find anything helpful in the practice of Tonglen? I think our tendency (well, some people’s tendency) to want to “help” can sometimes and paradoxically get in the way of actually seeing, really seeing and feeling for, another person. I like Tonglen because it removes us from our desire to DO SOMETHING NOW and helps us connect on a deeper level.

    As you pointed out, there was likely nothing you could have done for that man. It’s an awful reality.

  3. Georgie Georgie

    It is a quandary.

    By the etymology of the word “respect” = “to look back again”, you did just that. It made an impression on you. It pained you. That proves you are a compassionate person.

    In other ways, you also make a difference. I know that you take part in local issues and that you try your best to help your neighbors when you can. I don’t know it for a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you also give to charity when approached.

    I appreciate your form of respect: “Look back again.” It’s one that my husband is very gifted at and yet I struggle with. Erich has served in the homeless ministry, and has volunteered at the immigration legal clinic. Thankfully, our children tend to take after him in this respect!

  4. andrea c. andrea c.

    Water. My answer to you is give a person in such a position your water. No matter what is happening, water would certainly help.

  5. Last week while waiting for the streetcar at Carondolet and Canal, I took a panorama shot with my delightful new iPhone:

    You’ll notice in the image a man is sitting on a sidewalk with his back against a building. A moment later he accused me of being with the FBI and punched me in the back. A couple women, also waiting for the streetcar, jumped between us and yelled for him to leave me alone. Wonderful ladies–they get my vote for example of spontaneous civic goodness.

    You never know what you’re going to get. I know that can be an excuse, but the percentages are important to keep in mind. (Not that you wouldn’t).

  6. Jack Jack


    Did you ask his permission to take his photograph?

  7. Hammy: Getting a comment from a social psychologist makes me think also of another factor at work here, namely my natural reticence to interact with strangers. I feel like there’s some kind of invisible membrane separating me from people I don’t know; once breached, interactions can flow freely, but I find it very hard to break that membrane under normal circumstances. I don’t feel this is a valid excuse but just a self-observation.

    Chrissie: I’m not familiar with Tonglen, or I wasn’t until I just looked it up. The Dalai Lama said, “Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.” Those Buddhists sure seem to have some good ideas. Thanks.

    Georgie: You may not remember but I love etymology and you’re right — I literally stopped and looked back again. I knew there was a reason I felt compelled to title this post as I did.

    Andrea: Water, yes, that’s a very good idea. But of course that would have required interacting which apparently I was too timid to do.

    DSB: I’m glad you weren’t hurt. At least I assume you weren’t. But of course that’s the life of an undercover agent.

    Jack: Do rhetorical questions need to be answered?

  8. The best course of action is always to ask the individual if they are OK, or if they need medical attention. Use verbal cues and do not attempt to touch them (as this may provoke a physical reaction or begin an altercation of some kind). If they do not need attention, they’ll usually just wake up and wave you off. If they do not respond, it is probably best to contact the authorities about a non-responsive individual and give them the location. Let the professionals decide.

    A nearly identical situation happened to me riding my bike home from work on the Parkway. It was darker, evening, and near the corner of Bienville. There was a male curled up off to the side of the bike path.

    I am nearly incapable of diffusing responsibility, so I took it upon myself to check and see if he was OK. After attempting to get his attention for a few minutes by voice and using my bike light, and receiving no response, I sought help from the authorities. I did not touch him (you should never do that unless you are wearing gloves of some type), but any individual who is non-responsive to verbal cues should be reported.

    Long story short, someone from the NOPD came over, got a response from the individual, gave him water and sent him on his way (didn’t want to arrest someone for being stumbling drunk in public). But it is best, if someone is non-responsive to verbal cues, to let the authorities know.

  9. Martin M Martin M

    I read that the Buddha is compassionate but that the Buddha is not obsessed with compassion.

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