|Image by Oran Viriyincy, via Flickr|
She was 21 in 1947, an office worker in downtown San Francisco. Every day she took the bus to and from work. The bus was always crowded. One evening she boarded the bus and was lucky to find a space on a bench seat facing the aisle, next to an elderly black woman. At the next stop, a man got on the bus. He was a middle-aged white gentleman, probably in his early fifties, wearing the traditional businessman’s attire of tailored suit and hat, and carrying an umbrella. He made his way down the aisle, and stopped directly in front of the office girl and the elderly woman. After a few seconds of staring at them, he suddenly raised his umbrella above his head and brought it down – thwack! – across the shoulder of the old lady.
The bus became absolutely quiet. No one said anything, not even the old woman who had been struck. She stared straight ahead. As if taking their cue from her, the rest of the passengers stared straight ahead too. No one said or did anything. But inside the office girl, a tortured debate was going on.
What should she do? What could she do? What he did was wrong, of course, but sometimes that was the way things were. But maybe she should say or do something. Say what? Do what? What good would it do? What if the man struck her too? What if she made it worse?
She was still debating internally when the old woman got off the bus at the next stop. An audible sigh of relief from the rest of the passengers could be heard.
And that’s the end of the story from 1947. But in 2004, the now-78-year-old ex-office worker looked around the room. “I should have done or said something,” she said. “At least I should have asked her if she was okay, or put my arm around her. That’s what I would do now. But at the time I didn’t know I could.”
She added, “I’ve never told that story before. I guess I tried not to think about it, because it made me feel so bad.”
For fifty-seven years she had carried that untold story around with her, a story that made her feel guilty and ashamed. But her guilt and shame is not the point of the story. She is forgivable, after all – a young woman, unexpectedly confronted with an evil act, is momentarily paralyzed by indecision. We can understand her reaction. I hope that by telling her story, she has forgiven herself.
And of course, she actually did nothing wrong. She simply did nothing.
And that’s the point of the story – doing nothing. I bet all of us have had moments when we’ve seen something we know to be wrong, but we did nothing. Because we were afraid, or because we didn’t know what to do, or – God forgive us – because we were too busy.
But doing nothing has a price. Fifty-seven years of guilt and shame, unacknowledged but still alive and festering under the skin. Fifty-seven years.
I hope that woman was transformed by telling her story. But even if she wasn’t, I was transformed by listening to it. Now I begin nearly every morning with a quiet vow: Today, I will not do nothing.