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Do Good Samaritans still exist?

There can be few of us who do not know the biblical story of the Good Samaritan – of the traveller who was beaten, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. You will recall that two pious and supposedly God-fearing men – a priest and a Levite – came upon him lying there, but did not stop to help. They crossed the road and passed by on the other side. The only man who stopped to help him was a Samaritan – a member of a despised minority – who tended to his wounds, and carried him to an inn to be looked after.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his very influential recent book “The Tipping Point”, tells of a modern experiment to replicate the Good Samaritan setting. Some years back, two Princeton University psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, devised a study. They met individually with a number of students training to be priests, and asked each one to prepare a short talk on a given biblical theme and then walk over to a nearby building to present it. But along the way, of course, there was a carefully prepared situation awaiting these scholars.

On the way to the building, each student would come across a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was: who would stop to help the man? To make the experiment more interesting, the researchers introduced more variables. First, before the experiment even started, they gave the students a questionnaire asking why they chose to study theology. Was it for spiritual growth? Or as a practical tool to find meaning in everyday life? Second, they varied the theme of the talk the students were asked to give. A selected few were given the theme of the Good Samaritan. Lastly, the instructions given to the students as they left for the nearby building were varied as well: some were told that there was plenty of time before their talk was due to start; others were told that they were running late and that they had better be quick.

If you were asked to predict which of the students ended up helping the man they came across, you would most likely say those who claimed they were entering the church in order to help people, and those who had just read the parable of the Good Samaritan. Studies have shown that most people expect this result. In fact, neither of those two factors made any difference. The experiment yielded, time and time again, the strange spectacle of a would-be priest hurrying to give a talk on the subject of the Good Samaritan and literally stepping over the victim he encountered on the way!

Here’s the punch line: the only thing that seemed to matter in this experiment was whether the student thought he or she was in a rush. Of the group that thought so, only 10 per cent stopped to help. Of those who knew they had a bit more time, over 60 per cent stopped! So the availability of time was the overriding factor. The convictions of one’s heart and the actual contents of one’s mind are apparently less important than the need to get somewhere to do something!

Where are we all rushing to? How many people do we come across who are “too busy” to do anything? Always running around, always immersed in thought, the stress lines of life etched on their foreheads? Where are they all going, what exactly are they all doing? What is driving them to such distraction?

Let me put it plainly. Not one of you is “more busy” than the rest of us – unless you choose to be. We are all given a quota of 24 hours per day, every single day. It’s a gift given in common to all human beings across the globe, regardless of status or standing. How you choose to spend those 24 hours is entirely up to you. If you find yourself sitting in your shop or office for 16 of those hours, or rushing from meeting to meeting, or doing three things at once – it’s because you choose to do it. Nobody has made you busy. You are busy because you want to be.

So what are the payoffs that drive us into such self-centred behaviour? Money, power, status and acclaim, overwhelmingly; and the desire to have more and more. You may claim you are busy; what you don’t want to say is that you are obsessed with being rich, famous and influential. And that you always want more.

Yet what are the things that keep people busy? If you analyse what people actually do with their time, the results are revealing. Regardless of whether you are the president of the land or a lowly clerk, you almost certainly spend your life immersed in certain common activities. You check figures. You write and rewrite reports. You pore over documents. You examine samples. You talk about others. You admonish people. You argue. You count things. You think about the money in your bank account. You sit and stare into space. Inspiring and enriching stuff, isn’t it?

Why does this matter? Because it takes us farther and farther away from our essence, from what it means to be human. The Samaritan story is important because it is a reminder to return to our core of love. If we spend all of our waking hours preoccupied with our own desires, we are missing out on the remarkable textures of “real” life – a life that takes in the richness of the world around us and gives something meaningful back to it.

We do not, for example, have time for our own children. We can clothe them in top brands and lose them in expensive schools, yes; but we are unable to sit and watch their progress, understand how their values develop, laugh in their laughter and cry their tears for them. No, we have fixed slots in the week for that sort of thing – time permitting. We have no time to sit and understand the inner thoughts of our own spouses, because we have figures to add up and the minutes of mindless meetings to read. How on earth are we going to have time for people “out there”?

We are the losers. Our mission on earth should surely be bigger than attending soirées and building bank accounts. There is obviously more to do here than to spend every waking minute in production lines and being ground under the wheels of commerce. The book of Ecclesiastes in the same Bible asks: “For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good?” And advises: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance…a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.”

Poetic, wise, and long forgotten.

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