By Kathy Berken
Have you ever watched the TV show called “What Would You Do?” It’s sort of like the old “Candid Camera,” with hidden cameras where actors act out scenes involving moral conflict or illegal activity, with the focus on whether or not bystanders intervene. It’s an emotional series for me because when I put myself in the scene I’m often anxious about whether I would do the right thing in similar circumstances. I think this is why the program is so popular, because it’s about real-life scenarios that have the potential to elicit emotional responses from viewers.
I could have written an episode myself based on a recent bike ride on a warm and humid morning along my favorite trail. Among the dozens of bikers, joggers and walkers I passed was a woman oddly wearing long sleeves and long pants, clothes suited for a cooler day. As I biked closer, I saw that her face was red and sweating. She probably could have used a drink of water and, yes, I had a bottle of water on my bike, but did I stop to offer her some of mine? No. So much for living the Gospel and being the Good Samaritan.
Now, if this scenario was on “What Would You Do?” without question, I would have said, sure, I’ll stop and offer her some of my water. That’s a no-brainer, right? Wrong. It was only what I can call now one of those often forgotten sins of omission. Growing up in Catholic schools, the sisters taught us about sin and a sin of omission was one I had a hard time understanding. But now, yes indeed, I get it. I had the means and the ability to help this woman. At least offer her some water even if she might refuse it. There was no Good Samaritan in me that day and I still feel guilty about it.
So, what did I do with this guilt as I biked home? I rationalized it. I actually first saw the woman on the path as I was biking towards my turnaround spot and thought about stopping to offer her some water. Then, on my way back, I saw her again and from a distance she appeared to be carrying something. Minutes before, I saw many joggers with fancy water bottle holders strapped to their hands, so I thought, “Oh, she must be carrying her own water. Great! Thank God!” However, as I rode closer, I wasn’t sure what was in her hand. As I passed her, I still didn’t know whether or not she was carrying water. Still, that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that there were dozens of other people on the path who could help. Isn’t that what the priest and Levite said about the man lying in the ditch, too?
The worst thing is that I was afraid I might be late getting home to shower and change so I could get to church on time. Seriously? Church? Imagine Pope Francis scolding you for walking into Mass late because you stopped to give someone a drink of water.
Never mind the myriad videos I have been watching on YouTube of people doing random acts of kindness and my feeling inspired by them. When there could have been hidden cameras on that trail and an almost-too-obvious scene begging for someone to stop and help, I failed miserably.
When I fail at the little things, the big things are just a show. So, now I am keeping an extra bottle of water in my bike bag. Just in case. In addition, the onslaught of bad news in the media about global situations I cannot fix overwhelms me and, feeling helpless, I easily shut down. That’s why I need to be accountable for the little things and know the truth in the words of the song “Let peace begin with me. Let this be the moment now.”
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)