Five days ago, I heard a woman get assaulted at 6 a.m. She was walking her dog — a little white dog — when someone came up from behind her and smashed her head into the pavement. One block away, I was walking to get a cup of tea at the coffee shop.
I didn’t see this happen. All I heard was a scuffle. Then silence. And suddenly the slow, shaky, painful moan of “Help…Help…Help.”
It was disorienting. I’ve never been so unsure of my senses and how they were interpreting my surroundings. Looking, my eyes were begging to see another human being who could confirm what my ears had heard, someone who could assist, who would know what to do. I did not want to be called to action. I did not want to be responsible for this woman’s pain.
I pretended for as long as I could that I didn’t hear her crying out into the dark for help. I resisted a rescue.
It never occurred to me in the moments as I was walking closer and closer to the origin of sound that an attacker had just committed a random act of violence. I thought, perhaps, that an elderly woman had fallen down the steps from her front porch or that her dog or cat was stuck under a car or in the cordoned off construction on the sidewalk. I didn’t want to be sidetracked with a nuisance. I didn’t want to solve a problem I couldn’t solve.
I wanted to continue walking to get my morning cup of tea: half black, half chamomile with a spoonful of honey and cream. It was an otherwise perfect morning, a cool 60s and low humidity made for a refreshing blue morning as the light slowly woke. I imagined the fallen woman, and in my head I willed her to get up.
Get up. Get up. Get up!
But the moaning continued, and I found myself quickening my steps, slowing my steps. My pace was erratic and unsure. I still hadn’t seen the woman, who was on the adjacent sidewalk, and it was growing clear to me, even in that moment, that I really didn’t want to. I didn’t want to cross the street. In fact, if I kept walking straight, I could just keep walking.
Finally, two joggers appeared at the cross street up ahead. They stopped running almost immediately and walked cautiously toward the sound. They reached the woman before I did. Suddenly, two more people came sprinting up the sidewalk. “Are you okay? Are you okay? Oh my god, are you okay?”
The woman had white hair, pulled back in a frizzy pony tail. She was slim and fit and petite and in her 60s. She was my yoga teacher. She was someone I knew in my community, and I didn’t want to know anymore. I left as quickly as I had arrived, speed-walking toward the police station around the corner. I reported the assault, and walked the rest of the 1/2 mile to the coffee shop to get my cup of tea.
I felt like a coward, shying away from decency and instead finding logical comfort in an indifference that prevented me from taking action sooner. Perhaps this was worse than the violence. I had not only failed my fellow human in her moment of need, but I had denied that I even knew who she was. I was far from an innocent bystander. I had committed a moral crime. Not knowing how to act is not an excuse to do nothing. I wish I was a better person in that moment, a person who didn’t let her mind get in the way of her instinct. Is this why courage is often symbolized as a heart?