The dangers of being a good Samaritan when society is dysfunctional

Back when I was a kid at intermediate school (‘junior high’ in US parlance) there was an incident involving a trestle table at the back of the class, on which had been placed a lot of craft works.

Silver fern in the Ball’s Clearing reserve.

Adjacent to the trestle was a large cupboard in which all the coats and bags were stored, and whenever the bell rang for lunch or for day’s end, the kids would surge at it, pushing and shoving each other in a violent scramble to get their gear and get out – fast.

One day I saw the cupboard door had been forced back far enough that – as it swung wildly before the pressure of the scrabbling kids frantically shoving each other out of the way in the race to grab their gear – it was pushing the trestle table over. I ran to the end of the class to save it, was too late, and ended up with the whole thing collapsed at my feet.

Was I thanked for trying to save it? Of course not. Instead I was informed I was the one who’d knocked it over. There was no point protesting because, if you were informed you had done something – well, you had done it. No argument.

The outcome was that when that wildly swinging cupboard door began pushing the table over a second time, a little later, I didn’t bother trying to help.

I mention this because it was an object lesson; if you rush in to help somebody in need, there’s a chance you’ll get involved in the problem, including being tarred by any mis-deeds those you are helping were involved with. That certainly seems to be a factor today: how often do we hear stories of people refusing to help others, often for no better reason than that they don’t want to get involved in whatever situation is unfolding before them, for fear of being falsely accused of wrong-doing or caught up a in legal stoush?

On the other hand, what happens if you don’t help when somebody really needs it? And what happens if somebody refuses help, when they need it? There was an incident, a few years ago, where my wife and I were out for a walk and found a guy leaning against a building looking ill. He wouldn’t let us near him. He’d discharged himself from the cardiac ward, he said through gritted teeth, and the pain had started again – but he wasn’t going back. He didn’t want help and didn’t want us to call an ambulance.

‘I can’t not help you,’ I said. He accepted that, but still wouldn’t let me near him. We decided to call the ambulance anyway. By the time it arrived several other people were on hand, and the guy was still protesting. The ambulance crew calmed the guy down and took him away, and I hope he survived.

If we’d just walked past on the ‘somebody else’s problem’ principle, or accepted his request to be left alone, he might not have made it. Or maybe he’d have been found by somebody else when it was too late. The guy actively and repeatedly declined help, and that totally got us off the hook, legally – even medical professionals are allowed to walk away if the patient refuses to that extent. But on the other hand, he clearly needed support, and you just can’t leave people to die.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


4 thoughts on “The dangers of being a good Samaritan when society is dysfunctional

  1. Some decades ago Florida passed what they called a “Good Samaritan Law.” Don’t recall the essentials at this remove in time, but if you stopped to help someone in need, and as a result that person was injured (I guess because, for example, you didn’t do CPR properly) then the injured person had no civil recourse against you.

    And as the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

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