Bystander to Hero

Years ago, during grad school, I was flying back to California to study after a visit home.  I and the other passengers were sitting in the airplane while it was waiting on the tarmac. As we sat quietly waiting to taxi to the runway, soft wisps of smoke began to emerge from the ventilation system.  Very soft and gentle.  None of us were moving, and the attendants were at the far end of the plane so there was no drafts to stir up the smoke. so it stayed close to the top of the bulkheads where it was coming out of the circulation vents.  It was about 2 or 3 inches thick at first, and gradually increased to about 6 or 7 inches.

Thick grey smoke filling the cabin.

All of us passengers noticed it…and it was somewhat of a curiosity, really.  Soft murmurings could be heard, and  you could see heads turning into the aisle to ask the person across the way if they also saw it.

Duh…it couldn’t be missed.

But nobody was panicking or concerned-or, at least, they didn’t appear to be-so I decided I wasn’t either. (Actually, I was pretty nervous about it, but I thought if I said or did something, other people would look at me oddly because I was the only one-funny how my first concern was “What will other people think?” even when there WAS SMOKE IN THE AIRPLANE CABIN I WAS SITTING IN SHORTLY BEFORE TAKEOFF-seems ridiculous to write that now)

Nobody else was doing anything, so neither did I.  I, like everybody else, just sat there and watched the smoke slowly increase, taking up more space along the bulkhead.

Nobody did anything for what seemed a very long time.

In a slow, calm move that has me chuckle even now, I could slowly see one hand about four or five rows in front of me tentatively rise and push the flight attendant call button.

The flight attendant came to attend to the call and her eyes got pretty big, pretty fast long before she reached that passenger.  She moved quickly towards the cockpit.

We were evacuated almost immediately.

As we milled around in the waiting area finding out what would happen immediately afterwards as we were waiting to still somehow get to California, I overheard the pilot in the waiting area of the airport say that when the flight attendant came to tell him about smoke in the cabin, he thought that perhaps an individual was smoking, because he couldn’t hear any distress on the part of the passengers.

It was quiet, so it mustn’t be a big deal.  or so he thought.

When he saw the level of smoke in the cabin, he had trouble believing there wasn’t mass panic and freaking out on the part of the passengers.

It hadn’t occurred to me to panic…because nobody else had.

I just went along with the crowd.  As did everybody else.

I always wondered why somebody doesn

Classic example of pluralistic ignorance. We do what everybody else does…because everybody else is doing it…cuz we are all taking our cues from everybody else doing what everybody else is doing.  Why do we join others in pluralistic ignorance?

One reason may be that when a situation is unclear then we look to others for clues to define what is happening. We then make decisions based, sometimes incorrectly, on other people’s actions, reactions or lack of action. This is known as pluralistic ignorance – when the group’s majority privately believes one thing and mistakenly assumes that most others believe the opposite. For instance, when we drive past a car accident, we might assume that someone else will call 9-1-1 or stop to help. Pluralistic ignorance occurs frequently and in diverse situations.

It would seem that too many of us have this underlying concern of acting differently than everyone else in the crowd with the almighty question that seems to rule too many of us too much of the time:

What will other people think?

We hate to be different in a crowd…to stick out, to stand out. It takes courage to go against the collective behaviour of the group to act out in a way that is faithful to our own internal values.

We fear looking foolish, or cowardly, or over-reacting, or trying something only to make a mistake.

We are wired for connection, and even amongst strangers, we feel the threat of being ostracized and pushed out of the tribe.

What makes this even harder is the diffusion of responsibility.  When a hundred people see a person fall, then whose job is it to help them up or call the ambulance?  The answer is unclear.  When two people see a person fall, then the answer is much clearer.
I remember coming upon the bus accident on the Coquihalla this past August.  When I and my Junior Tribe member found our vehicle stopped just before the scene could be seen, I initially suggested we stay in the car-certain that whatever accident had occurred would have folks much more qualified that we on the scene doing what needed to get done.  I had no desire to be a lookie-loo.

The JTM disagreed and went to offer his help-he’s too young and naive to go along with the crowd-in his youthful energy, he fancied himself a potential hero.  He came back for water and  to tell me the situation was grave. The tour bus had rolled and there were passengers all over, wandering around or lying on the ground stunned.  The JTM and I helped for the next four hours…while many simply stood by and took photos.

Yes, took photos of suffering victims reeling from shock.

And yes, my son, who didn’t know any better, and foolishly believed we could help? Well, both an ER physician on site and the RCMP site coordinator independently sought him out shortly before we left to thank him and congratulate him for being a hero that afternoon.  He truly had gotten in there and done what needed to get done.

I have a feeling he would have pushed the flight attendant button earlier than anybody else on the airplane-because his inner compass would have told him it was the right thing to do.

‘Cuz that’s the kind of young man he is.

And I hope he doesn’t outgrow that courage the way so many can as they grow out of the youthful stage of, “I can change the world.”

Ways to avoid “the bystander effect”:

  1. Intentionally be mindful of your own values and honouring your own integrity.  Isn’t it ironic that we seek to please others that we don’t know and we will never see again?
  2. Ask yourself, if I live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you…what will my actions be?
  3. Draw deep on your courage, and invite others to join you as do seek to be helpful to someone or something that needs your help.  Inviting someone to join you in assisting can then inspire lots of people to help.

Take a peek at the bystander effect in action:

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