The Effect of the Bystander Effect on the Bystander

I have a theory. In any event of oppression you always have two players in that scene, but often there is also a third—the former two being the perpetrator(s) and victim(s), and the latter being the bystander(s). When you get into issues of guilt, I think the bystander has the most tortuous life post-incident.

Usually the victim will not feel guilt. It’s possible, but I think more typical responses are shame (different than guilt), lowered self-esteem, or a loss of confidence. The perpetrator rarely feels guilt. Very few malicious acts are committed on the spur of the moment; most are steeped in passion and premeditated. You could use all your breath to convince someone what they did was wrong, but it may be months, years, or decades (or never) until they feel remorse and guilt.

Seared into the bystander’s mind, though, is how he just stood there and did nothing. In any general psychology course you’ll learn about the “bystander effect” and how good people do nothing because they assume somebody else will come along later and give the aid they’re not providing themselves. We administer a mental salve, a way of convincing ourselves nothing is required of us because someone else will pick up the slack. It is nothing more than us banking on the supposedly guaranteed goodness of others, when we aren’t even providing that same goodness upon which other bystanders faultily rely. The typical representative example given is when car after car drives by a fellow traveler’s broken-down vehicle on the side of the road. It’s not our job to help him or her change that flat tire because eventually someone else will come along and take care of it. Except if everyone is thinking the same thing, then . . .

But those are highways and broken fan belts. What if a human’s well-being, nay, his very life is at stake? Would we be more apt to jump in and help, or would we be frozen to the spot in which we stand? We can tell ourselves all day we’d move with the utmost alacrity upon seeing a fellow member of humanity in trouble, but honestly none of us can know until we’re in that situation. I think we’d be surprised at how many of us would find our feet encased in ice.

And if that were to happen, the amount of guilt that would follow us around post-incident would be tremendous. I think it would be rather unbearable and enough to drive someone to suicide.

But I think this guilt is needed. As painful as it may be, I believe there would eventually be redemption encapsulated by the hurt and embarrassment of not moving to action when you should have. It can be something to wake us up, to bring our senses and emotions out of the musty basement. It can remind us what it is to feel again. But it could also take a wrong turn.

We might try to take on the victim’s wounds as our own bruises. In other words we try to move straight from pain to empathy, skipping over sympathy because sympathy wasn’t something we even succeeded in doing the first time around. And when we try to make such a quantum leap, we’ll probably be frustrated, and the hurt will grow more. Until another opportunity comes along to help a stranded or persecuted soul, the shame of being the bystander will probably only grow.

But to go around looking for opportunities to be the hero isn’t necessarily the right mindset, either. To begin to believe we exist solely to be the fix-all solution to peoples’ problems isn’t healthy. It seems what the bystander needs most is forgiveness and the release accompanying it. But what if the victim is no longer around? Would not the bystander be paralyzed by memories of his own inability or refusal to lend a hand, a hand that could have carried salvation in its palm?

Often any conversations centered on forgiveness tend to focus on how God provides redemption for the mistakes we incurred, mistakes being a word that usually denotes purposeful actions we took, but we’re also too aware we have hanging over our heads (because we put it there) a litany of grievances we’ve acquired simply by doing nothing, and I think those nag at us with the strongest intensity. I know they do for me, anyway.

But forgiveness is all too often one of those concepts no person can fully wrap his mind around, and so the bystander could be told night and day how his mistakes don’t matter anymore, that he’s absolved of any guilt, that everything will be okay, but the contrasting voice of the conscience is a nefarious adversary, one whose whispering voice can ultimately win out with its trickling streams of white noise dissonance tickling the inner ear almost entirely unbeknownst to the bystander and his conscious playground of emotions.

And so too often the story of the bystander is one that can not end in resolution. It may very well fade to black with myriad loose ends flapping in the night wind. We’ve all felt that despair, we’ve all felt that loneliness, and we’ve all felt that conundrum of human existence. It’s why we can’t sleep sometimes, why food loses its allure even on an empty stomach, and why things that formerly gave us joy now seem lackluster. And the reason stories about such experiences can be so powerful (if constructed correctly and with care) is they’re the searing two-word embrace of, “Me too.” And perhaps that’s when healing can begin—when we realize others have done the same as us, but they’re still getting out of bed each day, and the world is still spinning regardless. I think this is when the renewal of hope can begin to enter the picture.

Much love.


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