A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my partner and I found myself telling her this story…
It’s the spring of 2002, I just stepped out of the front carriage of the Piccadilly Line train on the London Underground. It is late in the evening, and the platform is basically deserted. My partner at the time and I are about to step out of the platform, when I hear a loud scream coming from my right.
I glance down the platform and I see a huge man, at the very opposite end of the platform, who is frantically examining some of his stuff, while alternating loud screams with deep sobbing sounds.
I stand by the doorway that leads me to a world of oblivion, where I let go of this moment and carelessly go back to my daily routine.
The train is still on the platform, waiting at a red signal, its doors still wide open. From the distance I notice that the people standing inside the train at the door two meters from the man, are staring at this frantic, huge man, while remaining immobile. Everybody is watching, but nobody is stepping out of the train to help. Perhaps they are late for their dinner or maybe they are fearful of getting involved, whatever the reason, everybody just watches.
I decide to walk over.
This guy is indeed huge, and he is clearly out of control, and so very, very cautiously, I approach, and from the distance I assess the situation.
As I get nearer, about 5 meters, my presence catches his attention, he looks at me, but it is as if he does not see me. His frantic behaviour, screams and sobs not missing a bit.
He seems an office worker, bald, suit trousers, spectacles, white shirt, and his blue suit jacket in his left hand. I can see the man is in pain, he is not at all angry, and he certainly does not look violent.
I get closer and I am now two meters away. From this distance he can hear me and I say, “Hey, are you ok? Do you need any help?”
He looks up, makes eye contact and in between sobs, he screams at the top of his lungs, “I lost it! I lost it! I can’t find it! I lost it! I must find it!”
Having heard him speak and looked into his eyes, I realise the man is innocuous, so I get close.
“Tell me, what have you lost? Maybe I could help you find it.” I say in a quiet, calm tone. He must have liked my tone and demeanour, because he slowed down somewhat, and in a calmer voice he tells me, “my mum’s ring, I lost my mum’s ring. It is a very special ring she entrusted me with and now I lost it.”
“Oh, I see, you lost your mum’s ring. Ok. And where was it the last time you saw it?”
Pointing at the suit jacket he is holding he says, “it was in my pocket. It was right there, just a short while ago, and now it’s gone! It’s gone! I lost it!”
I don’t know why, but as I hear that I have a feeling his pocket has a hole in its lining. It happened to me once before, and I suppose his story must have elicited that memory.
“Would it be ok if I take a look?” I say with the same calm, quiet tone.
“Please help me, please! I lost it! I must find it!”
“It’s ok, let’s look for it together” I say while reaching to grab his jacket. If my theory is right, I know that the ring is somewhere between the lining and the jacket material. I palpate the bottom seam of the jacket, starting from just below the pocket where the ring was last felt, moving my way towards the centre of the jacket. As I reach the mid line, I feel the ring.
I say nothing, and silently proceed to manoeuvre the ring back to the pocket and through the hole from which it must have first escaped. And, like a magician revealing a rabbit from the hat, I reveal the ring and say, “There, we found it!”
The man immediately shifted into a state of utter elation, and after securing the ring away from my hand, towering over me, approaches and gives me a huge bear hug. With some slobber down his face and the sobs now alternating with sound of joy, he says to my ear, but still somewhat shouting, “Thank you, thank you, you saved me. Thank you very much, you saved me. Thank you.”
It felt as if he did not want to let go, but I could feel his genuine gratitude, and, while somewhat disgusted by the slobber, I gave him a gentle and somewhat tentative hug back and said, “It’s ok man, I am glad we found it. Now go home and look after yourself.”
This was a surreal experience.
Every time I told this story, including now that I am writing about it, I realise that from the moment I decided to approach, from one end of the platform to the other, and throughout our interactions, I had complete tunnel vision.
I had no sense that my partner had followed me up to a distance and then, as she told me later, apprehensively stopped, fearing the worst. I had no sense of the people who were literally standing two steps from us while doing nothing. I didn’t even realise that the train was still there until I walked back to my partner to make our way out. All I could see, hear or feel was the man and me.
I always felt that this experience gave me many lessons, and to this day I continue to discover new facets from it. Let me share some of the most salient ones.
The bystander effect is a real thing.
Not that I needed this experience to prove anything that scientists had already studied and documented, but the Bystander Effect is one of those things that until it happens to you, it is difficult to believe.
Social psychologists refer to the Bystander Effect as the phenomenon whereby individuals are less likely to attend to a victim and offer help when there are other people present.
Seeing people at the train’s door, literally staring at the man two meters away and doing nothing was a key motivator for me to step in.
When the circumstances allow, step in as soon as you can to provide support to our fellow human beings.
IT BEGINS WITH YOU
After returning to my partner, who was waiting quite some distance from us on the platform, she expressed a deep sense of relief seeing that I was ok, after she had run a full short-film in her head, which, by the end, saw me dead by stabbing.
My initial reaction was to dismiss her concern. But after my nervous system returned to normal, I did wonder whether I had put myself in harm’s way.
There is no denying that I took several risks, however, having reflected deeply on how things unfolded, what I realised was that my decision to engage was driven by a quiet, yet firm conviction that whatever happened, I would be ok.
With a clear mind, I remembered the moment my mind went into extreme tunnel vision. Suddenly, it was like my mind was projecting a movie on a silver screen that showed all possible scenarios that were likely to unfold.
The most extreme scenario my mind came up with, funnily enough, was indeed that of a stabbing, which coincidentally was the one and only scene my partner’s mind had projected onto her own silver screen.
Somehow, my mind read all the possible angles of what was most likely to unfold, and for each, provided me with a strategy to deal with it.
With this powerful manifestation from my unconscious, I felt total trust in myself and decided to move forward.
We all have more power and resources than we imagine… if only we could trust them more!
One other key reflection that I took away from that experience, is that throughout those moments, I knew I was not alone.
This took me a while to realise, but I eventually noticed that one factor contributing to my decision to engage, was that the train was still there and the people still at the door staring.
Obviously, I had no way of knowing when the train would go, and I also had no conscious awareness of the fact that people were there, but somehow, I trusted that if things were to turn sour, the very people who I previously judged as apathetic and unconcerned, would jump to my rescue.
This was most intriguing to me. Why would I trust that the very people who did nothing for one man, would actually do something for me?
At a superficial level, the simple explanation was that they would have seen me moving in to help, and while they may have done nothing for a visibly distressed, possibly dangerous mountain of a man, they would have certainly jumped in to help the good Samaritan who was willing to help.
On deeper reflection, I realise that my judgment of those people as apathetic and unconcerned was in fact a belief I held within or quite close to the surface of my consciousness. While in fact, at a deeper level within my unconscious mind, I held the belief that most humans are fundamentally good and that we are all in this together.
Trust humanity. There are plenty of amazing people around, but we don’t get to see them as openly as it would be useful to live a more peaceful life.
In a world were negative and sensational news sell, our focus is on constantly highlighting the bad, the disastrous, the malevolent. In fact, there are probably an equal number of positive, constructive and benevolent acts happening everywhere at any time… we just don’t report them as much.
The moral of the story?
Trust yourself to be the amazing human being you already are. And prepare to be surprised by your awesomeness when you least expect it.
Thank you for reading my article.
I base all my articles on real case studies and research findings that are relevant to my work and my clients.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if you would like to explore something together.