Early one evening in late 1999, a close friend was in a taxi near his home. He looked out the car window and saw an old woman lying on her back in her driveway, an anguished, helpless look on her face. Two barking dogs stood beside her. There was a long line of traffic before and after the car. But nobody else seemed to have noticed.
He told his driver to pull over and ran back to the woman. He tried to help her to her feet, but she winced in pain, so he picked her up and carried her into her house, followed by her dogs. She weighed no more than a child. He set her down in her chair. She said she wanted to call her son, so he brought her portable telephone and address book. He asked her if she was in pain, and she said no. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” Since he had a commitment that evening and time was short, he took his leave. “Thank you—thank you sweetly,” she said, adding, “Please shut the inside door as you leave.”
He noted her street address, went to his car and filled the driver in on the details. The driver called to have paramedics dispatched. A little further down the street, they saw a police car. The driver flagged the policeman, and my friend told him the situation and the address. The policeman sped off, and my friend continued on his way.
Suddenly, he was struck with a twinge of horror: What if the front door had locked? What if the dogs attacked the paramedics? Shouldn’t he have made sure the door was not locked? Shouldn’t he have shut the dogs in one of the bedrooms? He exchanged numbers with the driver, and asked him to check back at the scene after dropping him off, and gave him a handsome tip.
Later that evening, when he told me the story, I was puzzled by his reaction. He clearly had done the right thing. Nothing would have been gained by staying with her. But he could take no satisfaction in his actions, and remained worried, agitated, and self-reproachful.
“But what about the door and the dogs?” he asked.
“You didn’t leave her bleeding to death. It wasn’t cold. She wasn’t suffering from exposure. The police and paramedics can handle a locked door and a couple of dogs. Don’t worry about it. If it bothers you, go by and check on her.”
As it turned out, after my friend had arrived at his destination, his driver went back to find out what had happened. Sure, enough, the door was locked. When my friend was informed, he became even more agitated.
The next day, he returned to the house himself. There was a pair of tennis shoes by the front door. The newspaper had been picked up. The dogs barked when he knocked. But nobody answered. He concluded that the accident could not have been too serious if there were signs of life around the house. On a couple of occasions, when he walked by, he noticed signs of life, but nobody answered when he knocked.
Finally, the following February, he passed by the house and saw the door ajar. He knocked, and an attractive middle-aged woman answered. She was the old woman’s daughter-in-law. When he introduced himself, she beamed, “So you’re the Good Samaritan. We didn’t know who to thank. Thank you so much for helping out.”
My friend’s satisfaction was, however, short-lived. It turned out that the old woman had died. She had broken her hip in three places. When the police and paramedics arrived, they found a locked door and barking dogs, and refused to go in. Fortunately, however, the daughter-in-law lived only a few blocks away and arrived just minutes later. Once the dogs were locked up, the old woman was taken to the hospital. She had hip surgery, but afterward developed a pulmonary embolism. She was in the hospital for three weeks and was steadily improving. But when it became clear to her that she would not be able to live in her own home anymore, she simply let go. She was 85.
Upon hearing this, my friend returned to his agitated, guilty brooding. Then he sought me out.
The first point I tried to impress upon him is that he did the right thing by helping, and that he should take pride in the fact.
Next we tried to determine the source of his guilty conscience. One factor was that the woman eventually died. But it was unreasonable to feel responsible for this. Her age, her frailty, and her triple fracture were the primary causes of her death. He neither contributed to these causes, nor could he have prevented them. The fact is, such falls are frequently the beginning of the end for frail old people, no matter what is done for them.
“But what about the door and the dogs?”
I had to grant that these were real oversights. Another person with greater presence of mind might have thought of them. But I asked if my friend would have stayed if the woman had been in more apparent and immediate danger. He agreed that he would have.
“But one reason why I did not think of the door and the dogs was the fact that I was worried about getting to my appointment on time.”
After some questioning, I managed to learn that behind this objection was the feeling that he was immoral to be thinking about his own goals when somebody else was in such dire need. But, again, this was unreasonable. Every human being has his own proper needs and interests. There is nothing wrong with keeping these in mind when helping others—even though our mental capacity is finite, and even though to the extent we are thinking about our own projects we might overlook some ways to help others.
If my friend had left the woman bleeding to death on her sofa in order to rush home to watch a re-run of Buffy the Vampire-Slayer, then he would have good reason to feel like scum. But he left a woman in stable condition after giving her means to call for help. He sent police and paramedics to her aid. Then he went off to meet with others who were counting on his presence.
He agreed that if his appointment had not been so pressing, or if he’d had no plans for the evening at all, he would have stayed to render more aid. But as it was, he rendered the most pressing forms of assistance, without sacrificing his own interests. He had nothing to be ashamed of.
He agreed with me, but somehow I still had not addressed he deepest source of his guilt.
So we began again. After extensive inquiry, we finally arrived at the following, not entirely satisfactory explanation. The source of my friend’s guilt lies in the tension between his atheism and his moral absolutism and perfectionism.
As a moral absolutist, he believes that there is an objective right and wrong based on nature. As a perfectionist, he believes that he is obligated to do make the best possible decision in every situation.
As an atheist, he does not believe that “all is for the best,” that “whatever is, is right,” or, as the stoners say, “It’s all good.” The evils of the world are real evils—not illusory evils, not providentially mitigated evils. Thus he cannot accept the imperfections of the world. He cannot simply say, “Thy will be done.” He is obligated to control the world and perfect it.
But he can’t. The world is bigger than all of us. The are realities that will always escape our control. Death is the most terrifying of these. Obligated to do the impossible, my friend is guilty by his very nature. It is his secular version of original sin.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis exploits this very problem to argue for the existence of a God who can forgive us and allow us to forgive ourselves. But as an atheist, my friend has nowhere to turn for supernatural absolution.
Once we arrived at this explanation, I asked him if he was willing to give up either his moral absolutism or his atheism. He refused to do either. “Only a coward abandons his convictions to make himself feel better,” he said.
“Then accept your guilt. Accept it as the price of your integrity.”