Winged Wednesdays: Angelic Acts Versus the Bystander Effect

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The other day, I was catching up with a coworker who had just returned from a holiday in Cabo San Lucas. I asked her how her vacation went and if she got any reading done on the beach, and she told she didn’t have time.

She was vacationing at a resort on a beach, and the beach was on federal land, so there were no lifeguards on duty. However, there were flags near the beach, indicating how the tides were. On this day, they were red and black. She figured these colors probably weren’t conducive to swimming, so didn’t go near the water. However, a young family did. Five people ventured into the water that day.

They thought they were playing it safe, only going into the water up to their knees. But a giant wave crashes in an sucked them out. The undertow was such that  once they’d been sucked out, it was like swimming up a fast river to come back to shore. The people got sucked into the water and couldn’t get out. If nobody helped them, they would soon drown.

My coworker is a woman in her thirties with no lifeguard training.  She got up from her spot on the beach, along with about five other people, and went into the water to help. The waves came up to her chest, and each time a large wave came, the undertow sent her “ass over teakettle”. Eventually, someone gave her a rope to hold onto and a lifeguard belt.

My coworker was part of a small group of people who managed to save three out of the five people who got sucked into the water. Truly, it was a heroic thing to do.

What was truly remarkable was that there were over a hundred and twenty people on the beach, and only six people offered to help. The other one-hundred-and-twenty or so did nothing. This is a common psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, where individuals do not offer help to a victim when others are present.

On top of that, one woman, while this was all going on,  shouted at my friend, calling her a fool and telling her that “Those people were stupid. They deserve to die.”

My coworker said she didn’t know if she’d jump in to help like that again, and given the risks she took to her own life, I understand. Sometimes, we feel like we’re lucky we survived something like that.  But at the time, she said it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Even if she wasn’t trained for the job, there were no lifeguards present and she couldn’t let those people die. Something inside her told her to do it. As a result of her altruism, she came out of it alive. All the rescuers did.

To those people whose lives were saved, my coworker and her affiliates were angels in human form. Truly it was an angelic act. Sometimes, we are agents and messengers of the divine in our own right.

My question is what made those six people help when 120 wouldn’t? Is it simply altruism? Or is an event like this something that shows us what we are really made of?


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