A Moral Dilemma

“Is there a running path near where you live?” my therapist inquired.

I told her I hadn’t run for some time. She asked me if there was a place nearby where I could go for a walk. I told her I live near the Fells Reservation, and that there were several places even closer than that, should the mood strike me.

“Whenever that feeling starts creeping in, go for a walk,” she urged me. The fresh air would revive and reset me. A walk would have me feeling like myself again, and the boredom and anxiety I’d been feeling would melt away.

I love me a good walk, and even though we’re well into October, the temperature still hits 70. At my last job, I was either driving or working outside. Rarely did I feel the need to get out and go for a walk. Now that I work in an office, I get up and hit the pavement once a day in order to kick out the cobwebs and breath in that fresh city air. That’s a joke, but these walks do put me in a better frame of mind. Sometimes I think about something that’s been gnawing at me, or sometimes I think about nothing at all. One thing is for sure, those endorphins are pumping, and most of the time I feel much better. This post is about the one time I did not.

—-

After a day of processing checks and donations, I decided to go for a walk. I’d been staring at a computer screen for too long, and my brain was fried. More importantly, the sun was shining through the windows of the office, and it looked absolutely stunning outside. I laced up my shoes, descended the stairs that snake around the elevator shaft, and emerged from the double doors onto the sidewalk.

I stick to a familiar loop when I go for these walks, although it’s not so much of a loop as it is a rectangle or a quadrilateral. I’m in the heart of the city, where I love to be, and sometimes I’ll stop for a coffee if I’m feeling groggy. After listening to music most of the day, I leave my headphones on my desk, and keep my phone in my pocket. These walks are a time for me to unplug and to not think about work. I want to come back feeling recharged, and ready to tackle the rest of the day.

About midway through Dartmouth Street, near the entrance to Back Bay station, something caught my eye. On the side of the road, lying on the curb was a man. He was wearing a dark blue jacket, and although he looked homeless, I wasn’t sure. As I looked at him more and more, I noticed that his head was off of the curb and hanging there, as if it were dangling off the edge of a bed. I surveyed his chest, hoping to see that familiar rise and fall, but I couldn’t tell one way or the other. The pedestrian in front of me stopped to take a look and then kept walking. I can’t speak ill of him because I did the same. I kept walking, not sure what to do.

Living in New York City, I learned very quickly that you have to harden yourself to these sorts of sights. It sounds horrible and cold, inhuman, but the fact of the matter is, if you stopped to address every single one of these situations, you’d never make it anywhere on time. Maybe that’s just me justifying my own inaction, but you become numb to it, and you learn to ignore these types of situations, at least I did.

Back at my office, I sat down in a panic, sweating, with my conscience eating me alive. I told my coworker about the man, and asked her if she thought he was dead. Her response was something like, “How should I know?” I know what I was doing: I was asking for her exoneration. I wanted her to tell me it’s okay to do nothing. As I sat there, I realized that I couldn’t live with this. Maybe he was just sleeping, or passed out, but maybe he was dead, and maybe he still had a shot if someone would expend a minimal amount of energy and call for help. I picked up my phone and dialed 911.

After the call, I power-walked all the way back to where I’d seen the man. I was sweating, a ball of anxiety, but high on adrenaline all the same. I moved fast, hoping to make it back there in time to find him. I had to know whether or not he was okay. I moved with haste through the station, bobbing and weaving, and finally made it to the other side. There was an ambulance and a fire truck there, and the man was gone. I saw the vehicles starting to leave, and a bald cop stood by where the man had been.

“Hey, was there a man here, lying on the curb?” I asked.

“Yes, but he’s gone now,” the cop responded.

“What happened to him?”

“He was a junkie. I rubbed him on his chest, and he got up and walked away.”

I felt relieved, and then I apologized to the cop. I felt bad they had come all the way here just to find a passed-out drug addict. He probably saw this kind of thing all the time. I suddenly felt like the boy who cried wolf.

“Don’t worry about it. You could have saved his life.”

I didn’t save that man’s life, but I could have. I’m acutely aware of the fragility of life, and how easily that situation could have cut the other way. It’s sad to think that while today that man is alive, tomorrow could be another story. Addiction is so scary and so vicious. I’m glad that he’ll live to see another day. I’m also glad I was able to sleep that night, knowing that even though it had taken some time for me to do the right thing, that I finally did it. There would be no self-flagellation.

I did what any decent person should have done, the bare minimum. I was frustrated with myself for not calling right away, but that feeling didn’t last long. I guess now that I live in a city where these occurrences are less common, I notice them more. Or maybe I’m just becoming more compassionate. I’m not sure which it is, and maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m glad that I’m starting to care more, I didn’t used to care, and I’m glad that I’m concerned about perfect strangers. I’m happy that that man got up off the curb, but I’m hoping for an uneventful walk tomorrow. I’m not sure my heart can take it. Thanks for reading.

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