Seventeen years ago this month I started a job on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and while I looked for a room of my own I lived briefly with a cousin, his wife, infant daughter and cat in Springfield, Va. One evening I went for a walk for a breath of fresh air (I’m allergic to cats) and very quickly got completely, hopelessly lost. Once the sun set I realized I was in very serious trouble. I didn’t have enough sense to abandon my ego and ask for help, but eventually a woman pulled up into her driveway, stepped out of her car and told me, “You look lost.”
She took me inside, called her husband and after a couple of near-misses with directory assistance (this was in the dark days of know-nothing, dial-up Internet) we reached my cousin, who came to pick me up. As I recall, I was too relieved and exhausted to be embarrassed. I don’t remember the woman’s name, but I do remember we share the same alma mater — to which I chalked up her charity at the time.
More recently I benefited from the immediate attention of several Good Samaritans. Out on my bicycle in what I thought was a thaw, I hit a patch of snow, ice or salt slurry on a slow turn and fell face-first into the pavement. What seems remarkable now is that almost instantly four or five people were on top of me offering assistance. As I counted my teeth, they peppered me with questions. Was I dizzy or nauseated? Could I remember what day it was? Was I seeing double?
Thankfully, nothing was broken or missing and I was thinking clearly. But I had destroyed my protective equipment and blood was running from my face. A man named Scott offered me his phone and he called my wife, who immediately came to pick me up. Scott also offered to walk me to a Metro station nearby where she would meet us. I abandoned my ego at this point, too, and accepted his help. I knew I had rung my bell pretty good and I needed to make sure I got to the station without any trouble. (Even though my injuries weren’t serious, it was the better side of caution. Only later at the hospital did damage control start reporting I had hurt other parts of my body, too.) Scott waited with me until my wife arrived and to his everlasting credit told her not to come down too hard on me for riding without my own phone or my ID.
Even more recently, after a short snow covered our neighborhood with ice, I was gingerly walking over the treacherous crust one morning to make an appointment downtown when a 4×4 pulled up beside me. “Going to the Metro?” the driver asked. When I said yes, he offered a ride. I was especially grateful since I had made the same walk the previous night in the dark. He was with his wife and three-year-old son, Jack. They were from the neighborhood — Mike and Monica, “M and M,” Monica told me — but I didn’t know them. I won’t forget them now.
I’ve thought about these Good Samaritans a lot, especially after my accident. I’d like to think I’ve been similarly helpful in my life, but I couldn’t recall any particular incident recent or distant. This is strange. I think I would have more compelling memories of helping people, especially in extreme circumstances. Anyway, it’s always been explicit in Abrahamic ethics that good deeds aren’t done for public acclaim but for the individual in need.
The biblical parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is probably the best-known act of charity in history. (Though many people may not know that the Samaritans, a small Jewish sect, continue to live to this day in Israel near Mount Gerezim.) But charity of some kind is enjoined by virtually every major belief tradition. Hinduism has almost specific lists of alms to give away to those without. Buddhists believe alms-giving is a path to Nirvana. Jews call tithing tzedakah. One of the five pillars of Islam is zakat, or alms for the poor.
In Islam we get closer to the interrelationship aspect of assistance that makes the parable of the Good Samaritan so compelling. The Qur’an commands to “give to the needy and the wayfarer” (47:38). The Tradition of the Prophet (PBUH), Hadith 26, elaborates on sadaqa, charity or good deeds done for others. It describes charity and giving in everyday activities. (It is compelling to me to see the clear linguistic root that runs through the same ethical concept from tzedakah to sadaqa.)
Since a relationship, more than an arms-length transaction of alms-giving, is established in this kind of interaction, I am interested in the emotional life of the Good Samaritan. A Good Sam is not quite a hero — the parable suggests he is perhaps inconvenienced, but he is not putting himself at great bodily risk. Nonetheless there is a risk implied in helping a stranger. Most belief traditions make the distinction in charity between helping family and helping those who are not kin. So it is instructive to look at how “heroes” normally and consistently respond when asked how they reacted at the time of their heroic act — they usually say they didn’t think, they just responded, and did what they could. Anyone would do what I did, they usually say.
And that’s pretty much what the four or five people who stopped to help me did when I fell off my bike. They were there instantly. They didn’t think about it. They just reacted to help. I’d like to think I’d do the same thing. It makes me wonder if it’s a natural phenomenon. There’s certainly plenty of recent evidence to counter the cynical notion of that when the chips are down, it’s every man for himself. When bad things happen — the Boston Marathon bombing comes to mind — in reality people actually help complete strangers without thinking about it. That’s fairly amazing when you do think about it.
Nevertheless, the parable of the Good Samaritan exists in part because people don’t help strangers and we need to be reminded that we should. The same goes for all the other traditions’ injunctions. I’m just happy to say I’ve been the recipient of this generous aid and I hope to repay it in kind.