Tag Archives: Helping People

Thermometers vs. Thermostats: You Don’t Have to be a Bystander

(Image courtesy of iowa.gov.)

(Image courtesy of iowa.gov.)

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?”

More shrugs.

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.”

They lived.

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.

Doing nothing.

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.

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Follow the Yellow Brick Road

It might be long. There might be some scary shit along the way. Keep going anyway.

It might be long. There might be some scary shit along the way. Keep going anyway.

The words were piercing.

“I want to die—I can’t do this,” wrote the broken 26-year-old. The one with the cheating husband. The one who’s being abandoned. The one just trying to figure out how to breathe. How to pick herself up off the floor.

I don’t know this young lady. But I know what all of that feels like.

She writes:

“I gave him everything.

“I have nothing—I hate myself.

“I’m empty—I’m a shell.”

Attitudes are more important than facts. – Karl A. Menninger

Hopefully she doesn’t really want to die.

I certainly don’t want to die. But for the first time in my life, I can at least relate to the thought process.

Sometimes, something hurts enough where flipping the switch to the OFF position doesn’t seem like the worst idea.

But it’s cowardly. Selfish. Wasted thought.

It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Absence of Hope

People feel this all the time. Hopelessness. It’s heartbreaking.

Because that’s one of the things we need the most—hope. Hope is how you persevere. It’s how you (insert cliché metaphor here) climb the mountain, break through the wall, conquer fear.

Hope is why we wake up in the morning.

Hope that today can be better than yesterday. That tomorrow brings the promise of unlimited possibilities.

Hope is why we educate ourselves and our children.

Hope is why we pray.

Hope is why we go to work.

Hope is why we love.

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And sings to the tune without words, and never stops at all. – Emily Dickinson

Motivational clichés are annoying. I know. But they’re clichés because they’re predominantly true.

When one door closes, another door opens.

When you get laid off from your job, you eventually get a new one. A better one.

When your spouse or partner leaves you, in theory, you eventually get a new one. A better one? I don’t know. But that’s my hope.

We build muscles by breaking them down.

We temper steel in fire.

Diamonds are formed under the Earth’s most-intense pressures.

If You Can’t Be Strong for You, Be Strong for Others

I don’t know much.

But I do know this: NOTHING eliminates fear, worry and stress in my own life quite like the news of someone else going through tragedy.

What were you worried about around 7:30 a.m. EST on Sept. 11, 2001?

What was bothering you on Dec. 26, 2004 when the tsunami hit the Indonesian coast?

How bad was your day last December when 20 beautiful children were fatally shot along with six teachers trying to protect them in Newtown, Conn.?

Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others. – Plato

People need you.

If everything’s great in your life, people need you. Help them.

If everything is total shit? People STILL need you. Help them.

Light Up the Darkness

You may not believe in fate. Or karma. Or that everything happens for a reason.

I don’t really know what I believe in that department. Nor do I particularly care.

I believe in math, though. In statistics. Are you getting spoon fed copious amounts of shit? Hang tight. Because good is coming to balance the math equation. To level the scale on the other side of the equals sign.

I also believe in being a good human being. In treating other people with kindness and compassion. With respect. With love in its most basic human form.

If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves. – Thomas Edison

It’s how I’m going to beat this.

It’s how I’m going to keep breathing.

It’s how I’m going to experience the sweet taste of whatever good thing is coming down the pipeline for me.

It’s how I’m going to keep my head up.

It’s how I’m going to be strong for others even when I don’t feel strong for myself.

Because we have LOTS of takers in this world. Shit tons of them. And I don’t want to be one. And I don’t want you to be one.

Find a way to give more than you take.

To be a positive force in a sometimes cruel world.

To light up the darkness.

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