Bypassers

I’m often at a loss for words when I see Americans pushing past all obstacles standing in the path to success. Vigilance, determination, and the one-track mindset is deeply ingrained in the American spirit.

We’re trained to jump through hoops and over hurdles. Never stop, and always look ahead.

But sometimes the ‘obstacle’ is actually a fellow citizen, and looking ahead means looking past. So today I have some words.

Consider five situations I’ve observed over the last week:

– A man driving his pickup, filled with tools, with the back tailgate open and pieces falling out. He’s driving down a four-lane freeway filled with cars, in slow traffic.

– Tourist couple with a camera. A man takes a picture of his wife. They switch off and she takes a picture of him. Lots of people walk by or take their own pictures.

– A woman trying to back out of a cramped parking space, blocked in by a car that parked across the street behind her. A line of cars waits for her to figure it out.

– People driving into a filled parking lot, not knowing it’s full. A line of people drive out of the parking lot, having realized it’s full already. They pass each other.

– A woman’s headphones fall out of her pocket as she boards a bus. Five people are in line behind her. They step over the headphones, board, and pay their fares.

Much has been written about the bystander effect, wherein people can watch motionless as a violent crime takes place before them. Being a bystander is an issue of diffusion of responsibility, as everyone believes someone else will take the lead and save the victim.

But being a bypasser is different.

Bystanders stay put, noticing that something is wrong, yet failing to act. Bypassers fail to acknowledge an opportunity to act at all. They remain absorbed in their lives instead.

Having your windows up or an iPhone to stare at provides an excellent escape from being present in the world, and isolates us from natural empathy. We don’t think “gosh, I would wish for some help if I were in that situation.” You’re anonymous, so why care?

All it took was a quick action for me to reverse all five situations. Rolled the window down to tell him about his tailgate. Offered to take a picture of them together. Jumped out of the car to help her back up. Told them to turn around before getting into the full parking lot. Picked up the headphones and handed them to her on the bus.

The reactions were deeply energizing. It completely made my day to see people happy, and made me want to help even more. But it was less heartening to see that they were so surprised.

Lately I’ve been frustrated because I love technology and believe in its power to bring people closer together. Yet all I see are examples of it making us more self-absorbed. Passively, absently — watching the world happen around us.

A few months ago, I read Justin Horner’s beautiful NYT piece on the immigrant family that helped him change his tire. Hundreds of cars sped past him on the highway. So it bears asking yourself as I did then: would you have been one of them?

So if you read this, please give by-pausing a try. Start small, and start today. Watch what’s going on around you, and actively think of how you could help.

I promise it won’t take you long. And these days, lifting a finger for someone else earns you smiles of bewilderment and a round of high-fives.