I would like to tell you two stories from my life with similar beginnings and very different endings.
One night in my late teens, a friend and I were standing outside a fast food restaurant. Several meters away were two girls about our age. An older man was talking to them and he was obviously making them uncomfortable. One of the girls looked over to me pleadingly, as if asking for me to intervene. I did nothing. I don’t know if it was indecision or fear or shyness. I wanted to help them, but for some reason I couldn’t. We walked away, and though I’m sure no harm came to the girls, I felt like I had failed somehow. That, though I had no obligation to intervene, it would have been the right thing to do.
For years that incident bugged me. The kind of memory that pops up occasionally to give you a little stab of shame and regret. I used to have a lot of those, these days I am more at peace with my past.
Then, one morning a few years later, I was on a train on my way to the city. A few seats away sat two teenage girls.An older man in the seat opposite was talking to them, I can’t remember what about. The girls were laughing awkwardly and the man’s behaviour was giving off a predatory vibe. The train rolled into the station and the girls quickly got up and made a beeline for the exit with the creepy guy in pursuit. I took it upon myself to do something, perhaps remembering the first incident, perhaps just because I had matured and changed somewhat in the few years that had passed. At the escalator to the concourse I placed myself between the girls and the man. An argument quickly broke out as he tried to push past me to get to them. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but it culminated in him threatening to assault me just as we passed the turnstiles. This was a big mistake on his part as we were in full view of several security guards who quickly moved in to pacify the situation. All this had given the girls time to leave the station. I left too, as the man was now shouting at the guards instead of me and made my way to the city’s central plaza, which was only a few hundred meters away. As I made my way down from the elevated walkway from the train station I heard a crash behind me. I turned and saw that a “slippery when wet” sign had landed about a meter away. A man nearby said, “I think someone just threw that at you.” I saw the two girls from before looking at me and asked them, “Was that the guy?” One of them said, “Yes,” and “thank you.”
For me, these two incidents pose some interesting questions about morality. Firstly: Given a situation such as these, does one have a moral obligation to intervene? Or, given that it doesn’t concern you directly, is it better to mind your own business and stay out of it? In other words: Is it right to be a white knight? To impose your morality on a situation if you feel that it is necessary. Perhaps in some cases it is and others it isn’t. In these two instances I certainly feel like stepping in was or would have been the right thing to do.
Secondly: If intervening in such a situation is right, does my action in the second incident somehow make up for my inaction in the first? Is there some karmic equilibrium that can be reached when one’s good deeds equal their mistakes? I’m certainly proud of myself for how I handled the man in the city, but it only occurred to me today that maybe one act vindicates the other. If nothing else, I think that original sense of failure helped to sway my decision to act in the second event. Perhaps guilt and remorse are our moral compass’s way of telling us we are going in the wrong direction. If we can learn from these feelings, we can make better choices in the future. Then, if we are presented with the right situation, we can make the right decision where in the past we would have failed and psychologically atone for our past mistakes. Perhaps that is where the real karma lies, in our own mind’s judgement of ourselves and whether our past makes us worthy.