I listened to a podcast while I was running recently about acoustic biologist Katy Payne and her work with whales and elephants. This is what I love about the show On Being. I go into it thinking, “What in the world do I care about whales and elephants?” and I come out of it thinking, “Wow, that was about SO much more than whales and elephants.”
During the interview Payne recalled an incident in which she and her crew filmed the death of a baby elephant. About 100 elephants unrelated to the baby walked by the withered corpse as it lay in the forest clearing. As she observed this scene, Payne noticed something extraordinary:
“Every single one of them did something that showed alarm, concern, or somehow showed they were aware of something novel that they were approaching. Some of them took a detour around. About a quarter of them tried to lift the body up with their tusks and their trunks, sometimes trying over and over again. One adolescent male attempted to lift up this little corpse 57 times, and walked away from it and came back five different times.”
Payne compared this clearing in the forest where the baby lay to Grand Central Station, and she wondered aloud how many people would stop for a youngster, or any human being, who seemed to be alone and in distress during rush hour in Grand Central Station. “Would you be perturbed because it’s a member of your species?” she asked. “If there was no one caring for it, would you care for it?”
I thought about those questions for a long time. Of course I want my answer to be yes. Of course I’d like to think that I would stop if I witnessed a person in distress in the middle of Grand Central Station, or on the corner of O Street in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, for that matter. Of course I’d like to think I’d care for the person no one else noticed.
But the truth is, I don’t know for sure. The truth is, I might keep walking. I might assume “someone else” would help, someone more qualified, someone with more time or resources than I.
In fact, the hard truth is, I have walked by.
I’ve walked past the man standing in front of SuperSaver with the tattered cardboard sign.
I’ve walked past the man lying motionless in a filthy sleeping bag on 12th Street.
I’ve averted my eyes when the mentally ill woman lurched past me on the subway, yelling incoherently and asking for help.
I’ve neglected to make the phone call to the friend who is suffering or the relative who just received the dire diagnosis.
I’ve pretended I didn’t notice. I’ve passed by without stopping. I’ve taken the detour to avoid contact. I’ve looked the other way. I’ve registered the distress and suffering of a member of my species, another human being, and I’ve done nothing.
I keep thinking about the dead baby elephant in the middle of the forest clearing. I keep thinking about the elephants that noticed something was wrong but kept moving and walked on by. I keep thinking about the minority, the one-quarter of the elephants who stopped and tried to help. I keep thinking especially about that one young male who returned to the dead calf five times, who tried to lift the baby to its feet 57 times.
That’s who I want to be: the one who stops to offer assistance. The one who doesn’t give up. The one who comes back, again and again and again. The one who tries my best to carry my fellow human beings, to help them to their feet when they are in need of help.
That’s who God calls us to be: the person in the minority, the person who stops to help when everyone else keeps walking on by.