A requirement of my grad school program is that its’ students take an online training course in sexual assault. Since college campuses are where the highest number of sexual assaults take place, I appreciated that the university did this, even if it meant spending a significant amount of summer time listening to a slow-talking voice in my laptop.
The first chunk of it was all about what, exactly, constitutes sexual violence. It spanned all the degrees between seemingly mild harassment to acquaintance rape. The second chunk addressed how we, as students, should respond if we see witness an assault or if we suspect an assault is happening in secret (bruises on a friends arm, abrupt change in personality, a disturbing partner.)
It’s all important, critical information needed in ending this type of violence, but perhaps the most critical and important and downright shocking piece of information shared in this training was the correlation between number of witnesses present before an assault and likeliness of intervention:
The more witnesses there are, the less likely someone will help.
It’s a chilling paradox. But it makes sense.
This social phenomenon is called “The Bystander Effect” and it works like this: The more people that are present, the less pressure we feel to act. Once that reluctance takes hold, we start to question how capable we are to help and then our subconscious starts to muddy up the moral imperative: It’s not what it looks like. There’s more to the story. We could get hurt. If it as awful as it looks, someone else will surely step in and save the day, because we can’t, because by now, we are frozen in our smallness, trembling before the terrible need that we’re convinced we cannot meet. And so there we stand, paralyzed, waiting for that one person to step forward. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
I thought about this today when I saw the photograph of the Syrian refugee lying on the beach, a small boy, a toddler. His name was Aylan. He was three. He was wearing a red shirt and blue shorts and found limp, facedown in the cold surf of a beach in Turkey. I saw the pictures this morning and immediately saw in my mind my two baby nephews, Wyatt and Sawyer. The thought set off an explosion in my chest.
The world is so dark, I thought.
Which is, I realized, a reflexive thought. A hopeless thought. A final thought. I instinctively reach for this canned answer whenever tragedies like this happen, as if to say: It Is What It Is. My heart cannot handle that it happens. That it doesn’t have to. So my mind fixes it by saying: The world is dark. Hopeless. What can we possibly do?
It is amazing how quickly my mind sedates this stuff. If we want to talk total depravity, we can look to my own mental processing, and perhaps yours too: Someone else will stop it. Someone in our government or someone over there will step in and put an end to this conflict, fling open the doors for the refugees enter. Relief organizations will rally. The picture is front and center before a world that cannot look away. Information is power. Change is happening.
And it is incredibly comforting to think this way. I feel a little relieved imagining the support that must be pouring in right now, so much support, so many people, and I am only one person. I am inconsequential in it all. A drop in the bucket. The world will correct itself with or without me. And it becomes easy to forget about it when you imagine it that way. So I do. I move on. I toss up the issue to more capable and qualified hands and say things will change.
We need to identify this sin inside us. This defense mechanism against responsibility. This Bystander Effect. This conditioned sense of apathy. This sin of always someone else.
Recognizing what it is that is wrong within us, why it is that these tragedies, sharp and unforgettable today, so easily fade from our minds tomorrow, is the first step towards repentance. And God, do we need to repent.
Reader, human being, small and helpless as you may feel, I encourage you to not look away. I encourage you to head over to the blogs of Sarah Bessey and Ann Voskamp, both of whom have written powerful words about what we can and must do and have also listed a number of ways we can all get involved. One way is this:
Take a picture with the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome and tag the leader of your country. Then tweet it. Post it on Facebook. Blog about what’s happening, what we can do. These are small, slacktivisit type steps, of course, but speaking up is a strong start. We should never underestimate the power of our collective voice. Next look at your means and look at where you can support. The Independent has put together a list of practical ways you can get involved. See what you can do. See where you can give. Join the Facebook page: Aylan’s Dreams: Welcoming the Strangers and Refugees
And pray without ceasing. Pray for Aylan. Pray for his family. Pray for the thousands fleeing this hell and pray for our leaders, our neighbors, that we all might welcome and give as we have been so welcomed and given so much.
Don’t wait for the right person to come along.
It’s you. It’s me. It is always all of us.