He was going into the Washington, D.C., law school where he teaches when he saw a student sitting on a bench by the entrance crying his head off. That struck him as odd—law students don't normally station themselves outside their schools sobbing for all the world to see.
No one else seemed to be paying attention, so my friend the lawyer went up to the young man and said, "Excuse me. Is there something I can do to help?"
The student explained between sobs that there'd been a death in his family and he was very sad.
Checking his watch, the lawyer said, "I have a half-hour before my class begins. If you want to talk about it, I'll be glad to listen."
The law student said he did. So the lawyer sat down and proceeded to listen.
I don't know whether he succeeded in cheering the young man up. He didn't tell me, and that's not the point anyway. The point is this.
After the incident, the lawyer told some other people what had happened and asked if they thought he'd done the right thing. In every case, the answer was no. "You were being intrusive," he was told. "You had no business sticking your nose into someone else's affairs. If that guy wanted help, he could ask for it."
The law professor was shocked. Listening to him, so was I. His story pointed to an obvious conclusion: the Good Samaritan was butting in, being "intrusive." Have we really come to that?
To some extent, it seems we have. Especially in big cities, people are watchful and hesitant about getting involved with strangers—often, it appears, with good reason. Teachers and others who work with children fear to so much as touch a child lest they be suspected of evil intentions. Men hesitate to be agreeable to women lest harassment become an issue. These are litigious times. One false step and you may land in court.
And then there are the reasons for stand-offishness that arise from plain old selfishness and self-absorption, looking out for number one and letting others look out for themselves. Plus the depersonalization that pervades our society like a poison gas, choking off human warmth and feeling. As the title of a much-discussed book put it a few years back, "bowling alone" has become a kind of national sickness.
Whatever explanation or combination of explanations you favor, there's a problem here. I don't have easy solutions to offer, though simply recognizing that the problem exists is a start. Nevertheless something Pope Benedict XVI says in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est—God Is Love—may help.
Government welfare programs are essential, the pope remarks. So are the charitable programs of the Church and other private groups. But granting the need for organized charity, "there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love."
I doubt that my friend, who is Jewish, has read this encyclical, but apparently he gets the message. It would be great if everybody did. In that case—"what a wonderful world this would be!"