Published: April 15, 2021

A Multiple-Choice Question That Is Harder to Answer than You Might Realize at First

In the photograph that appears above, what is this woman doing?

A.) She is cultivating inner peace through the practice of transcendental meditation.

B.) She is preparing to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).

C.) She is facing up to the fact that her motionlessness might mislead an unsophisticated bystander into thinking that she needs help.

D.) She is cultivating inner peace by preparing for a moment when something will go awry for another person, and she will want to be ready to join other bystanders—maybe even to galvanize and lead those bystanders—in trying to help.


Since none of us is acquainted with this individual, we cannot be certain that we will guess the right answer. And, drawing on my own experience, I know that we cannot instantly eliminate any of these answers.

For people of a certain sophistication and savoir faire, Answer A will look like the only possible choice. But for people with more limited holdings in urbanity and worldliness, the first reaction to Answer A might well be “transcendental what?”

Answer B might seem easy to dismiss, but evidence argues otherwise.

In December of 1971, early on a Saturday morning, I showed up to take the LSAT at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Sitting in the front of the lecture hall, at the center of everyone’s view, one test-taker was shredding every stereotype imposed on aspiring law students. Arrayed in a long white robe, he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, humming quietly and meditating up a storm.

This person’s approach to test-taking anxiety was unusual, though I have no reason to think it was unique. In fact, if you think about this for a moment, there are several thousand worse ways to prepare to take the LSAT.

And that brings us to Answer C, which is also a lot more plausible than you might think, as an impending story is about to demonstrate.

And then there’s the most compelling answer of all: Answer D, carrying a constantly accelerating importance in the world we confront today.

The upcoming stories will clarify why this multiple-choice question is harder to answer than you thought when you first read it. The stories will also demonstrate that the category of people, mentioned above as having “more limited holdings in urbanity and worldliness,” composes a sizable sector of society, which I know from having spent time in that category myself.

These stories, it is important to note right from the start, are about an activated bystander who has regularly risked her dignity as well as her chance of being perfectly understood, but who never risked her life.


An Unsophisticated—but Very Activated—Bystander Enters the World

When I went to college, even a very lengthy freshman orientation could not possibly address all my deficits. I had been born and raised in a small town, and when I arrived at UCSC, the list—cataloging well-established practices, customs, and understandings that I had never encountered—was vast. This lack of sophistication provided me with a treasure trove of incidents as awkward as they were funny.

Just a few weeks after school started, I was studying in the small library of our residential college. Ten or fifteen feet away from me, a fellow student was sitting in an armchair placed between two rows of bookcases and facing a window. From the corner of my eye, I could see that he was very still. I kept studying, but I also kept glancing in his direction. After he had remained completely motionless for fifteen or twenty minutes, I got worried.

In no time at all, I had conjured up mystifying medical calamities that could have befallen him. And it was soon clear that I was incapable of staying out of a situation where a fellow human being might be at risk.

So I carefully approached the young man who I now knew to have been stricken by affliction, and I touched his arm.

No response.

Uh oh.

Another tap or two, and then I shook his arm.

He opened his eyes.

I had revived him! Hurrah!

“Have you ever heard of transcendental meditation?” the young man asked me, in a tone of voice that carried more in the way of heated vexation than warm appreciation for my concern.

I had been born and raised in the hinterlands, where none of us meditated, with or without transcendence. But now I had learned that “transcendental meditation” meant “holding very still for a surprisingly long time.”

The Moral to this Story

Sometimes a person who is motionless is in trouble and needs help. Other times, a person who is motionless is intentionally engaged in practice unknown to bumpkins like me. With luck, I might eventually figure out which was which.


Apparently, a Lesson Too Late for the Learning

(Apologies to Tom Paxton for Misappropriating His Song,

The Last (not Lost) Thing on My Mind)

As a bystander, I have rarely had a moment’s hesitation when I thought someone needed my help. This has not given me much opportunity to recognize situations where my help was unwanted and unnecessary.

Hardly a year or two after my interruption of the attempted meditator, I was at it again, though expanding my zone of operations from interventions in meditation to interventions in napping. This time, I was in a parking garage at a Los Angeles shopping center. Waiting in a car for a friend to complete her shopping, I noticed that a man in a car in my line of sight was not moving. I watched carefully, and he seemed immobilized, frozen, very likely incapacitated by the onset of a sudden frailty.

I gave him what seemed to be my standard allocation of patience—fifteen or twenty minutes.

Then it was time to intervene.

I got out of my car and tapped on this poor, weakened man’s window.

This woke him up, earning me the glare of annoyance that signals that a pleasant nap has been disrupted.

The Moral to this Story

The boundary between intervening and intruding is not easy to distinguish. But that reality does not require us to hold back when we have reason to think that we are confronting a dire situation, though it does require us to make our peace with the goofiness of mishaps that good intentions have a striking capacity to produce.



Provider of Parables:

The Bus Route from Harvard Square to Park Circle, and a Trio of Tales

When I lived in Massachusetts, the buses that carried me between Arlington and Cambridge were my mobile social psychology lab. Sometimes I just observed and eavesdropped the human subjects who rode with me. Sometimes I took the role of the human subject whose character was being rigorously tested.

Here are three stories that have to be told as a trilogy.

The First Tale

The route from Cambridge to Arlington sent the bus through a couple of rotaries—not civically engaged service clubs (that would come later in life)—but those odd roundabouts where vehicles enter and race around in a circle and then exit, and surprisingly few accidents occur.

On one commuter journey, as the bus went around a rotary, an elderly woman stood up in order to get off at the upcoming stop. Since the bus was moving rapidly around a circle, she wobbled and swayed a little, in a way that made me think she was going to fall.

So I jumped up from my seat, grabbed her, and held her steady.

Within a second or two, it was clear to me that she had not actually been about to fall. She had a good grip on a seatback, and the only thing that had unsettled her was the fact that a stranger had leapt up and grabbed her for no imaginable reason.


I apologized and sat back down, resolving to keep my eyes on my reading whenever I was on a bus going around a rotary.

The Second Tale

One morning, when I walked up to the Park Circle bus stop, I found an elderly woman seated on the bench, waiting for the bus. She had two canes, and she struck me as frail.

When the bus came, I got on, and the driver started to pull away. “Oh, wait!” I said to him. “There’s a lady who is just standing up from the bench.” So the driver stopped, and I got off the bus and helped the lady up the stairs, and then helped her to sit down on a seat near the front of the bus. When she was seated, she got out her bus pass to show the driver. As she struggled to position her two canes so she could stand up, I moved fast and asked if I could take her bus pass and show it to the driver. I returned the bus pass to her, and she then enjoyed a few minutes of peace. When I was getting off at Harvard Square, I saw that the lady was once again struggling to stand up with her two canes. So I paused and offered her a hand . . . at which point, she shook both canes at me and asked—fervently—for me to leave her alone.

And, at that point, I tried to assure the universe, “OK, I got it this time.”

The Third Tale 

Just a week or two later, as I was getting off the bus in Harvard Square, I almost stopped to help another elderly woman who was struggling to stand up. But as I started to speak to her, sharp memories of my earlier excesses in helpfulness came quickly to mind. “Stop,” I instructed myself. “Do not get in this person’s way by seeming to condescend to her and thereby reminding her of her frailty.”

So I did not stop. Just seconds after I refused myself the temptation to be an activated bystander, the woman fell just behind me. Even though I turned around to join others in helping her up, I knew that if I had not repressed my bystander compulsions, this fall would not have happened.

The Moral to this Ensemble of Stories:

Embarrassment lifts comparatively quickly. Regret hangs around.


A Cohort of Activated Bystanders Vie for Supremacy

I was headed home to Arlington, when a mishap occurred. An older woman, getting off at a stop in Cambridge, missed the curb and lost her footing when she stepped off the bus. The bus driver threw on the parking brake and hurried to help her. Right in his wake, three or four of us passengers trooped off the bus.

The woman had a few scrapes and probably some bruises-to-come, and her glasses had not fared well. She could stand and walk without pain, but she was very rattled.

The activated bystanders then began to compete to determine who was best equipped with steadiness and availability to make sure she got safely back to her home. As the bus driver watched in amusement (having a bus to drive, he was eliminated as a competitor), we put forward our credentials. In truth, we all seemed to be pretty good souls, but the competition came down to who had the most flexible schedule and so would be least inconvenienced by walking her home and returning to the corner to catch a later bus.

I won.

So I got to escort the rattled lady to her home, to assess her condition, and then to confuse and frighten her elderly next-door neighbor, who saw us approaching and thought her friend had somehow fallen into questionable company and needed to be rescued from the clutches of an unknown intruder.

Well, no one ever said that activated bystanders are always going to get recognition for the qualities that they would like everyone to see in them.

But I am everlastingly glad I got to see our little group of volunteers striving for selection as the humanitarian who would get to put her principles into action. As the very insightful CU history graduate student Micaela Cruce put it when I told her this story, we were four Good Samaritans competing to see who was the Best Samaritan.


The Intersection of Trouble and Tranquility

Several years ago, as I was walking toward the intersection of 29th Street and Broadway, a car going south on Broadway suddenly made a left turn onto 29th Street. This was surprising to see, because there was an oncoming car—unquestionably with the right of way—heading north on Broadway.

And so, as I watched, one driver made an inexplicable left turn directly into the path of a driver who could not possibly have anticipated this situation, and certainly couldn’t stop in time.

As an activated bystander, I quickly joined the people who got out of their cars in the middle of the intersection. Thankfully, no one was injured. One driver was a young woman whose mind had clearly been elsewhere when she made her left turn; the other driver was a mild-mannered, middle-aged man who was surprised and distressed to find himself a participant in a collision.

Neither of the drivers were, post-accident, posing a problem. But the task of posing a problem had been taken up by a burly young man who had been a passenger in the young woman’s car. He was very angry—not at his young female companion for her stupid left-turn, but at the mild-mannered, middle-aged man who, a moment or two ago, had had the right-of-way, but now had a battered car.

So the burly young man shouted at the middle-aged man, and I told the young man to be quiet because I was calling the police on my cell phone.

The young man then shouted at me, “Give me that phone! I want to talk to the police!”

I did not give him my phone.

Instead, I told him that it was great that he wanted to talk to the police, because they would be joining us very soon. I then deployed a barrage of spoken words where they could serve as buffer, padding, insulation, shield, shock absorber, etc. to keep him from hitting the middle-aged man.

It worked.

A person who saw this scene, and who did not know me, might have thought I had placed myself in a disturbing situation.

On the contrary, I had placed myself in a situation where I got to do what I was meant to do in life: heading in fast as an activated bystander to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

The Moral to this Story

After the first few practice runs, the activated bystander repeatedly receives one of life’s greatest gifts: you have reason to expect that you will get calmer as others get more agitated.


The Weighty Context for these Light Stories

As every reader will have noticed, the bystander stories I have told are stories in which humor can figure because no one gets hurt. In all of those stories, I intervene without risking my well-being—or my survival.

The context is a very different matter.

I wanted to write on the subject of bystanders because, like millions of others, I start every day by learning about the stories of what happened the day before. In 2021, for those of us who cannot break this habit, the day ahead is instantly populated by people facing trouble from which we would like to rescue them. Because of our distance and remoteness from the people we want to help, this desire goes nowhere.

A good share of the troubles we learn about will include the stories of people who suddenly found themselves in the role of bystanders to calamity, but who felt themselves to be powerless.

To the core of my soul, I believe in the power that enters the world when activated bystanders get moving. But I am completely at a loss when I contemplate situations in which bystanders have compelling reasons to think that—if they intervene—they will only succeed in adding their own names to the lists of the victims of an unfolding calamity.

The bystanders who have watched other people die from violence, or who have watched other people suffer random attacks on city streets, have faced dilemmas that bear no resemblance to the stories I have told. In these times—really, in any times—there are people beyond counting who have had to choose whether to be activated bystanders who risk their own lives, or to be passive bystanders who have made an entirely understandable choice to protect their own lives first.

I have never come near having to make that choice, and I am eager—in truth, desperate—to be in the company of the people who have made those choices and to learn from their stories and their reflections.

And yet, in my manner, I am still driven to propose that we take what might seem an indirect route to rescuing our troubled society.

I want to change the default definition of bystander.

In today’s dictionaries, the word bystander is stuck in its own version of a lockdown, confined to incapacity and irrelevance.

Contemplate the standing definition [this one is from Merriam-Webster]:

Bystander: One who is present but not taking part in a situation or event.

Thankfully, words are dynamic and evolving. Their meanings change as a society’s relationship to them undergoes transformation. And if definitions that deserved a transformation on behalf of societal well-being ever arranged themselves in a line by urgency, bystander would take first place.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the circumstances in which we are living, we are all bystanders now, and we all have a stake in getting rid of the misconception, enshrined in dictionaries and in common speech, that bystanders “do not take part in a situation or event.”

Here’s a revised and refreshed definition that we could put in place by say, 2030:

Bystander: One who is present and joins with others to take part in a situation and event,
when there is a chance of stepping in without making things worse.

Trying—with uneven results—to live in compliance with that definition, I have acted from compulsion, rather than lofty principle or personal virtue. Nearly always, I have found myself in action before I had decided to act.

Where did that compulsion come from?

When I was a kid, we lived at an intersection where traffic accidents happened too often, as people driving fast on an open road suddenly found themselves entering a small town. The screech of tires was a familiar sound.

Living at this intersection, my father and mother were activated bystanders. When the sounds of calamity at the intersection reached us, my father headed out the door, while my mother called to report the accident and kept us all calm. Repeatedly, our father offered company to people in serious trouble, waiting with them for the ambulance to arrive. In one story that stays in the mind of my sister and me, a sports car had flipped, and the driver was trapped inside it. As my sister remembered this, “We were banned from going close, of course, but Dad was right there.” The driver of the sports car did not survive, and, as my sister said, “Dad attended him as he died.”

That sister became a nurse. Our other sister became a minister. I became a teacher.

We were raised by activated bystanders.

To this second, I believe this: when we can be helpful, not taking action will destroy us.


A Neighborhood of Activated Bystanders

In this concluding story, I am only a bit player.

In New Haven, we lived on a block of two-story houses, most of them divided into an upstairs-and-downstairs pair of apartments. The four years we lived there were the utopian days of the porch. In the summers, we sat on our porch, chatted, played dominoes, and even sang songs. People walking by stopped, talked, and sometimes sat down and joined us.

One evening, I was riding my bike home from a meeting. It was dark, and late for porch-sitting.

But as I turned onto Livingston Street, I was surprised to find nearly all the neighbors were out on their porches, though standing, rather than sitting.

What was going on?

Here’s what had happened.

On the street, a young woman who had been walking by herself had been approached and grabbed by a man. She screamed, and the porches filled with neighbors. The perpetrator left fast; everyone made sure that the young woman was OK; and a couple of folks walked home with her.

I turned the corner onto Livingston Street, and as I got off my bike, fifteen or twenty neighbors welcomed me home.


Holding Onto a Rope: Why I Wanted to Tell These Stories

In one familiar item of Western American folklore, people who lived in rural places knew that they should anticipate and prepare for blinding blizzards that could end visibility. Thinking ahead meant running a rope from the farmhouse to the barn.

In a time when events come at me like a dense snowfall driven by wild winds, a string of stories running through time serves the same function for me.

I realize that this string of stories is a weak rope that might lead me further into the blizzard.

But it is the rope that has been placed in my hands.


Patty Limerick's Signature
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