The black smoke was unmissable against the stark gray backdrop of winter.
Something on the back of an RV had caught fire while parked at an interstate travel plaza and rest stop just outside Elkhart, Ind., which is—ironically—where most RVs are manufactured.
I stopped the car and pulled out my phone, called 911, then hit record to capture video of the burning RV. I figured the explosion would be awesome if the fire reached the gas tank. A handful of cars pulled over too and the other travelers joined my gawking. Why do we like to watch things burn?
“God, I wonder if the owner knows their vehicle is on fire?” I asked.
Everyone around me shrugged.
And then it dawned on me that someone might be inside. Seemed unlikely. But possible.
“No one’s in there, right? Could someone be sleeping or showering?”
I took a step toward the burning RV. Then hesitated. Then stopped.
Naw. They’re totally inside the building grabbing food or a cup of coffee…
I kept filming.
Minutes later, the fire trucks arrived, sirens screaming. And that’s when I saw it. Movement in the RV’s windows.
An elderly couple stepped off their RV—the combination of smoke filling up their RV and the sound of emergency workers pulling up next to them had woke them from an afternoon nap in the RV’s bedroom.
I took a deep breath and made eye contact with the guy next to me. I could see the same look in his eyes I must have had in mind.
“Oh my God. There were people in there.”
What was presumably their home away from home burned to the ground in front of them. A total loss.
But one thought haunts me: What if they hadn’t woke up?
And I just stood there.
We Are Often Thermometers
It’s called the “bystander effect.” It’s a sociological phenomenon researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley observed and studied in the late 1960s and wrote about in The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?.
Sociologists say the presence of other people creates a “diffusion of responsibility.” It means people feel less pressure to take action since the responsibility to do so is now shared among everyone present.
But we also feel a need to behave in “correct and socially acceptable ways.” When others around us are doing something or not doing something, our brains take it as a signal that a similar response is most appropriate.
In other words, we often act like thermometers. We simply reflect the current temperature of our surroundings. As thermometers, we have no other function.
We Should Be Thermostats
I was listening to the guys at Inspiring Awesome talk about this. Thermometers versus thermostats. I liked the metaphor.
A thermostat ALSO can tell you the current temperature. But more importantly? It can serve as a change agent. If something is wrong? If something needs fixed or adjusted? The thermostat can begin the process of making things what people want or need them to be.
I just stood there. Being one of those assholes with a video camera even when a little voice inside me was telling me there was a chance lives were at stake.
But I didn’t step up.
What if they had died in there?
Another time, there was an 80-foot tree in our back yard with a failing root system. My neighbor told me they had spent years trying to convince the previous owner of my house to have the tree removed. I didn’t want to spend $2,000 to have it removed, so much like the former homeowner, I did nothing.
One night, a large storm system that days earlier had been a Gulf of Mexico hurricane blew into our neighborhood.
Tropical storm-force winds blew down the massive tree. A couple neighbors saw the giant fall. I felt the impact sitting on my living room sofa. When I ran to the back window, I saw it laying across our back yard, a totally destroyed garage beneath it.
But that’s not the important part.
The important part is that we had our three-month-old son sleeping in our upstairs bedroom. And I lose my breath every time I think about the wind blowing in his direction that night.
Because of a couple thousand dollars.
Because of apathy.
Because of carelessness.
We are so careless. With our health. Our safety. Our hearts. Our human relationships.
We are often thermometers. Just people getting caught up worrying about what other people think.
But we should be thermostats. Change agents. People who do something because something needs done. Because something can be done. And we can do it.
That family stranded on the side of the road with their vehicle hood open needs help.
That person sitting alone might want someone to say hi.
I don’t want to make any more stories about that time I could have done something.
Things DO NOT have to be this way.
Don’t wait for the person next to you to start running toward the fire. Just start running.
Maybe they’ll come too.