I recall being at a young man's funeral where the man's sister broke down, falling to the carpet and keening as her brother's coffin was taken to the car. I knew the young woman quite well and wanted to go to her and do what I could to give her some comfort - anything rather than leave her to suffer so awfully alone on the floor while the many attendants at the funeral filed past and around her. But I also didn't want to push in where I wasn't needed or wanted. I looked around for the girl's family - her parents and siblings and aunts. Because none of them went to her, I felt that I couldn't go to her either; I didn't want to usurp their role. So I watched her, hesitating, until finally, after some minutes, someone from the family came to raise her up and care for her.
I am filled with regret that I didn't do more.
Flocks of psychologists from all over the country descended upon NYC back in 1964, after it was reported that a young woman named Kitty Genovese was killed outside her apartment, in three separate attacks by the same man, over a half hour period - in view of 38 witnesses, not one of whom went to her aid or even telephoned the police. While many of these details were later disputed, the question remains: why did nobody help her? Was it apathy? Callousness?
Major studies prompted by the events around the attack arrived at a counter-intuitive conclusion: the greater the number of bystanders who view an emergency, the less chance there is that any will intervene - something that is now known as the 'bystander effect'. Studies have repeatedly illustrated that we tend to feel a 'diffusion of responsibility' when part of a group. The larger the group, the less likelihood that anyone will want to be the first to step forward. In other words, Kitty had a much better chance of being helped if only one witness had seen or heard the attack, rather than the reputed 38.
Why bring this up? It's not a very cheerful topic for a Monday morning perhaps, but it is a meaningful one and brings me to this conclusion: awareness of this phenomenon and some of what prompts it can, I hope, help to immure me to some extent from its effects. I don't want to have any more regrets that I didn't help out when help was needed. No matter what anyone else does. What do you think?