Monday, July 25, 2011

Speaking out

Last Friday ginandtacos asked, at what point should you speak up when you see a stranger is in trouble? 
Being a generally nosy and outspoken person, it's rare that I see her without wondering If I Should Say Something. Of course I never do. The excuses for avoiding it are so numerous. It's none of my business. She wouldn't care what a stranger says anyway.... Her friends and family are probably already intervening. I'm being paternalistic and sexist. And so on.
Like Ed, I am a generally nosy and outspoken person, so this is an issue I struggle with as well. Even in smaller, less life-threatening ways, like when I see people committing a faux pas because, apparently, they're new to the area and don't know the culture. Does my attempt to help them fit in override the rudeness of pointing out their mistake? What about confronting people who are themselves being rude? Like asking the guy sitting on the metro to give up his seat to an obviously pregnant woman; am I the hero for helping out - and helping this guy be polite, which he probably wanted to do - or a jerk for embarrassing him?

But those are trivialities. The more frightening examples are the ones Ed points to. Do I speak out when a friend seems to have a problem? What about a co-worker? A complete stranger? Especially if I'm acting only on my amateur analysis of the situation.

Sometimes, I've learned, people don't want - or aren't ready - to be helped. With my friends I've learned to be present and supportive without trying to change them. It's not easy. In the past I have had to essentially cut some of my friends out of my life - temporarily - because they were not ready to change and I could no longer be part of their self-destruction. At some point it's what they need from me in order to get better; at some point it's what I have to do to keep myself from going down with them.

But again, strangers are harder. Ironically, this is a place where "nice people" have more trouble precisely because they are nice. They - we, I hope - care about the other person's feelings, even if the other is acting a manner not deserving such compassion. Our desire to help runs into our desire to avoid embarrassing or upsetting them. I think that's why characters like House have so much appeal; here's someone that won't let hurting patients' feelings get in the way of helping them. We envy that...freedom. That ability to speak, to act, without reservation when we know it is right, regardless of the harm it may cause, secure in the belief the greater good will be served.

Because without it, all to often, we just watch. In silence.

There is a prayer in Judaism which asks God to open our mouths that we may pray properly. Several, actually. I have come to love this prayer. It addresses directly the issue Ed and I face. It asks God - whatever that means to you - to help us find our voice.

To give us the strength to speak.

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