Nestled almost at the base of the hills, one of Temecula’s largest parks sits in a bit of a hollow on the other side of town from me. I venture to that side of town so seldom that I cannot even claim I watched the park evolve over the years into the sprawling grassy picnic oasis of forty-four acres that it is now. I knew it once only long ago, when in high school I went with the Earth Club to plant a tree there as one of our projects. That park, with almost no structure on it or development, was way out in the boonies back then, my most awkward year as a teenager.

In fact, the planting of that tree marked the single time I’d ever been there in all twenty-four years of living in, or visiting, Temecula.

Until this past November.

In November for the first time I took a running route that crossed over one of the main roads and found myself all the way over at the third high school across town. Circling back around, I passed the park, appraising for the first time its loveliness and extensive play structure. Later that day—it was a Sunday—I returned with my children to show them this new place.

The girl over on the cement benches under the pergola looked to be a junior or senior in high school, wore loose her long blonde hair, dressed too darkly and too warmly, and winced out a forlorn look that could have been mistaken for diffidence. She saw us, of that I am sure, but seemed not to care. A glance showed her bent over with her head almost on her arms, doing something—maybe texting? She carried a satchel large enough for books, and the optimist in me believed she might just be waiting for someone. My intuition suggested she was a bit out of place, but not to the point that she warranted any more than an occasional sideways check of peripheral vision. On one such check, I saw her wipe her nose with a tissue. The mom in me, or perhaps the lingering naif, thought maybe she had a cold.

Eric, Katie, and I moved away from the tables and benches and over to the big play structure, where we played for maybe forty minutes or more.

By the time we felt ready to go get frozen yogurt, many more families had arrived at the park. As we walked back toward our car, and toward the pergola, I saw a small group of a mom and a couple dads all staring in one direction: the girl was in the throes of clearly drug-induced behavior. Wild gesticulation. Swaying her body round and round. Pounding the table with her hand. Bloodshot and wan. Muttering nonsense. Clearly a danger to herself, possibly to others.

One mother wondered aloud if she should call the police. All of us cast about, as lost as we were afraid.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I just finished a couple of days ago, well-known psychologist  and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Daniel Kahneman explores the ways in which two brain systems affect the way we process decisions and arrive at judgments. System 1 is emotion, quick, and (to a fault) intuitive; System 2 is more logical, more deliberate, and more able to process a statistical view of the world. Marshaling years of his own research as well as that of others,  Kahneman reveals that we all fool ourselves all of the time, and he gives us practical advice for thwarting various mental glitches and dealing with profound cognitive biases.

In a chapter on base rates, causal statistics, Bayesian reasoning, and beliefs, Kahneman summarizes an experiment (not his own, actually)—the “helping experiment”—conducted at New York University. Participants in the experiment, talking into microphones and separated by booths, through hearing witnessed a stooge experience a health issue So far as the rest of the participants knew, one of them was having a real health problem and had asked for help. Only four of the fifteen participants made a move to help. Six never came out of their booths, and five others emerged only after the stooge appeared to have choked. The experiment demonstrates the tendency to feel relieved of responsibility when we know others have heard the request for help. The point is that the results may surprise us: most of us fancy ourselves kind people who would be quick to help. The experiment, however, shows that this expectation is fallacious. Even normal, decent people can fail to act helpfully when others are present to take on the unpleasantness of a tough situation. This means all of us. Me, too.

We don’t always step forward.

Back in the park, I assessed the flailing girl most certainly there for the sole purpose of doing her drugs. No doubt she had sniffed something, as I reviewed what I knew in my mind. She needs help. I should call the police.

And then I got scared. For my children. For myself, as a mother of these children. Who knew what else the girl had in her bag? I didn’t want my children to see any more of this. Much is made about how protective parents are these days. Yes, and sometimes young people need sheltering. Not every opportunity for a lesson in real life is a good one, not at that age.

Sometimes young people also need to see consequences. And kindness and helpfulness to our fellow man.

I will never know for sure if I made the right decision. I summarily decided for the moment that the two dads and the mom already discussing the issue could decide to intervene. I hustled my children into the car. I cast a vote of burden on the shoulders of the others, without a word. One might easily imagine that those adults, too, watched and discussed her behavior and their indecision ad infinitum until action would have been useless or irrelevant, or until they decided to let her be and wandered away back to their children. Of course that could have happened; we know, in fact, that such an outcome is likely. I knew it might be when I chose to leave. My decision was selfish, through and through. And I knew it.

As a Utilitarian, for the most part, I take John Stuart Mill’s words seriously: “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions, but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

I drove around the corner and texted my husband. We are each other’s check and balance when it comes to ethics. What should I do? Should I go back and call for help?

Bill’s response was clear and immediate: Take our children away from there, right now. Be safe.

Not a day of these six months has gone by when I haven’t thought of that girl. I wonder about the conclusion to her story. I wonder about the beginning of it, too. No one is born wanting to block out the pain and get addled in the park, an intentionally public space. That’s really the most gut-wrenching part, to me. Her outcry was plain: the park is a busy place. I hope she is okay. I suspect she is not, or will not be yet. If anything, the journey has only started for her.

I cannot say I look back with regret, because that’s really not it, not exactly. In all reality, I probably would make the same decision if I had to do it again. I know myself, for better and worse. Putting one’s children out of harm first may NOT always be the ethical decision when it comes to the fate of all humanity, but in this case, I think it was. It was high risk for them, a high risk brought about by a human being who was not assessing the potential risk to them when she made HER decision. But what if it had been just me there, without my children? Perhaps my mind would have found another reason to avoid involvement. Perhaps I am putting a narrative on my decisions in retrospect, to give my choices a convenient coherency.

What I question most is the moment when I glimpsed my own fear and when I stood in my grey area, as I have stood every single day since: that space when I know that I am not always what I expect to be. That space in which the ethics are not so clear, when we know we are trading one thing for something else…when we know we are making a judgment with all the frailty and bias of our own humanity. In those moments, can we see clearly? If everyone acted as we are about to act, would the universe be a kinder or a worse place? What if our intuition and our probabilistic view of the world conflict?

The ripples of my inaction are unknowable, as would be the ripples of acting. I don’t think I will ever know objectively if I made the right, or best, decision of those available; I only know that I had mere moments to decide, weighing quickly, making trades, as we all do. It is easy to stand in hindsight and judge oneself, and I know that by offering this story, I invite others to use their hindsight and hopeful speculation about their own behavior to judge me. We are a judge-y sort of species. It comes with the narrative-making thing. Always a morality tale.

But I have no morality tale for you today. I have only the description of the time when I lingered in uncertainty and tried to grasp my own heuristics and biases in the most honest way I know how to do. I could be wrong. I could often be wrong...

Perhaps we may only begin to trust ourselves when we know through reason that we never quite can.

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