I was 21 years old, traveling alone in southern Turkey, when I came upon a mob of people in the town square of a small fishing village. In the middle of the crowd was a mentally disabled young man who was being taunted by the mob. They pushed, shoved and teased him. Someone ran up from behind him and put a large paper bag over his head. He didn’t know what had happened and couldn’t figure out how to remove the bag. The crowd roared with laughter. People threw rocks and cans at him while others spun him around until he fell, dizzy and disoriented. He got back up, flailing and staggering, and the laughing and taunting went on. The bag stayed on his head. No one intervened.
I was enraged and sickened and wanted more than anything to come to his defense, and yet I knew that if I had intervened, I would have been the next person in the center of the mob. I turned around and walked away not wanting to see what might happen next.
Although I have given hundreds of speeches and written dozens of columns over the nearly 40 years since that day in Turkey, I have only very recently felt comfortable sharing this experience with others. Perhaps I didn’t want to relive the pain of being a bystander, or maybe I was ashamed that I hadn’t helped that young man. Possibly, I couldn’t think about what might have happened to him after I left. Perhaps that story didn’t seem as relevant to my own life and the times in which we live as it does today.
Stories of bystanders aren’t limited to far-off countries and different cultures. Blatant examples like the recent news about bystanders in college football locker rooms have shocked the country.
We are all bystanders in other, more subtle ways. In communities across our country, people are hungry; millions are unemployed; high school students drop out in large numbers; more children are living in poverty; returning veterans are unsupported; environmental degradation and climate change is pervasive; discrimination against women, gays and lesbians, people of color, persons with disabilities, the elderly and others persists; education budgets are being slashed; arts organizations are closing; vast numbers of Americans have no health insurance and the medical care it would procure; and more. Across the globe, billions of people live in abject poverty. In the time it takes to read this column, more than 40 children will die of preventable causes.
We are bystanders when, living our busy lives, we witness these societal problems and fail to act to our full potential. We are bystanders when we lose sight of our connections with other people and accept their predicament as “just the way things are.” Nearly everyone has their own story — some more and some less dramatic than mine — of times in which they wish they had done more to help someone in need and times in which others stepped up to help them.
At Thanksgiving, we gather to express gratitude for the good things in our lives. The December holidays bring families together to share faith, values and tradition. The New Year is a time to make plans for the year ahead. On these occasions, tell your stories, listen to the stories of others, and reflect upon whether you unintentionally may have been a bystander.
The term “philanthropy” means the love of humanity. Recent events, economic recalibration, global communication and climate change all underscore our common humanity and our interdependence. There is no better time than this holiday season to find thoughtful and heartfelt ways to contribute your time, talent and treasure to causes that will help others lead healthy, satisfying and productive lives and to preserve the things you cherish most about yours.
This article first appeared in the Denver Post on Sunday, November 20th, 2011. Reposted here with permission of author. -Ed.