Ordinary People, Extraordinary Compassion

Several years ago in a large shopping mall I watched this scene unfold: About 100 yards in front of me an elderly lady had fallen down an escalator. Her shopping had spilled everywhere. One of her legs was bleeding, and with the escalator still moving there remained other possible dangers. As I approached five or six people, none of whom knew the lady or each other until moments before, had already burst in to action, forming a collaborative team.

A young man pressed the emergency button to stop the escalator; a couple lifted the elderly lady from the metal stairs, where she was balanced precariously to the main floor, and someone’s coat was placed under her head. A middle aged man dialled 999 to call for an ambulance. A young woman came out of the nearest shop brining with her a first aid kit. She knelt over the elderly ‘patient’, asked how she was, assessing for shock, and explained that she was a off-duty nurse. The lady was shaky but unbowed. The gash in her leg wasn’t too bad, although there was a lot of blood.

The main actors stood around sympathetically, awaiting the arrival of the paramedic crew. One man had blood on his jacket from lifting her off the escalator. Another man and woman had collected her spilled shopping and put it back in the bags. Other people offered help but weren’t need, so effectively had the team performed. And then the experts arrived. The ambulance could be heard some distance off; the paramedics, so familiar form various TV programmes, dressed in medical uniforms carrying specialist equipment, arrived efficiently and quickly. The helpers melted away and became curious onlookers.

Everyone was touched by this experience. For a few minutes these complete strangers had acted selflessly, had given no thought to themselves. Nobody had thought ‘this is no business of mine’, or if they had, they had quickly dismissed it and taken responsibility, like the good Samaritan. Then the middle-aged man looked at his watch and the spell was broken. The young man talked to his girlfriend they and walked off, leaving the off-duty nurse in charge. The patient seemed fine and people remembered who they were – an accountant going to a busy company board meeting; a mother collecting her children from school; a young woman in love.

For a few moments the world had frozen a compassionate snapshot, but then, as in the marvellous last lines of Larkin’s poem Aubade the everyday world began to move once more. The shopping mall accident became an event, to be mused over that evening in front of a score of TV sets or even earlier in two dozen offices. But for a few moments all those ordinary people had behaved extraordinarily, lost in the service of a single distressed other.

Meanwhile telephones crouch,
getting ready to ring.
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented wolrd begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

(Larkin, 1990)

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