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Living Our Values, A Surprising Obstacle

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life." Socrates

Everyone seemed to be in a blind hurry, and there was no relief in sight. Technology rushed us ever forward, and simple civility - a certain kindness and care - got sacrificed.”

Elizabeth Berg, The Year of Pleasures

Recently, John and I finally after much pulling and tugging got three of our grandchildren all suited up for skiing in Leavenworth. By the time we got out the door and buckled in the truck, it was about 2 p.m.

The kids were complaining that so little time was left to ski. John suddenly stopped the truck.

“What’s going on?” we wondered aloud. John had put the truck into reverse and was driving backwards.

What John had noticed in his rear view mirror was that another truck, one which had pulled over so we could pass on our narrow road, had gotten stuck in the ditch.

The kids were up in arms.

“We’re late; what are you doing?” “No going backwards. Drive on.”

John explained that he had taken out his tow chain to put the skis in the truck and would need to go back home to get the chain to help this person, probably one of our neighbors, get out of the ditch.

“No, no. He can get out by himself. We’re in a hurry!” the kids frantically yelled.

John kept proceeding backwards while talking to the kids, “So you would just go on by a person in the ditch and not help them? That’s not what good neighbors do.”

We backed up. Yes, it was a neighbor. We told him we would come back with our chain and get him out.

By the time we returned, the neighbor was gone. Maybe another person helped him out or maybe he was able to do it himself.

This episode set the kids talking. Yes, they had been vocal about not stopping, but now they were re-evaluating.

Later, one of them, Anna, said, “You know when I visit you all here and then go back home, my friends in Mercer Island ask me what it’s like in Cashmere. I tell them that the people are all really friendly and nice. They help each other and there are no homeless people [we do have at least one] because people help them. I guess that’s true.”

I’m thinking about what Anna has said - what she now seems to be endorsing (helping others) and musing on why the kids initially did not want to stop and help. The situation mirrors something that researchers found while studying seminarians at Princeton.

The main take-away from what is now called the “Princeton Seminary Experiment” is that people in a rush are less likely to help others.

The ironic part of this experiment is that, of course, seminarians are studying to be spiritual leaders with the main aim of getting people to notice others who need help and jump in. But in the experiment, lots of them did not stop to help a person who was clearly perceived to be in trouble (an actor crying, coughing, and bent over holding his stomach).

Why didn’t these good people stop? They were on a tight timeframe, had to hurry or else they would be late, to get to church to speak…on, wait for it…. “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37 in the New Testament) a person from a despised town, a Samaritan, surprisingly helps a traveler assaulted by robbers and left half dead.

Others had a chance to help before the Samaritan. A priest and a Levite pass by the injured traveler. The idea is that maybe these so-called religious leaders don’t practice what they preach even with their own neighbors.

Research social psychologists, John Darley and Dan Batson, wondered about this biblical story. Maybe they felt a little sorry for the bad rep the religious leaders got in the parable.

For whatever reason, they seriously pondered what might stop "good" people from helping. The researchers were curious if maybe it wasn't about character at all, but rather about the pressure of time. Feeling the need to hurry.

The results? In the big hurry situation, only 10 percent stopped to help. In the low hurry situation, 63 percent of the students stopped to help.

The researchers concluded that despite training and calling, the seminarians’ failure to stop was probably not due to indifference, self-centeredness, fear, or contempt. The more likely cause for failure to stop and help could have been time pressure.

The theory is that time pressure caused these students to behave in ways that “upon reflection, they found disgraceful.”

What happens in a time pressure situation is a phenomenon known as “narrowing of the cognitive map.” We miss details, we are not present enough in the moment to notice what is going on, what is really important, and we don’t make choices that align with our values (most people do want to be helpers).

According to researchers, we don’t even stop to help ourselves. We neglect our well-being, our exercise, being with family, getting medical check-ups – put ourselves at risk because we are in a rush. Always.

We are continually taking on more stuff instead of slowing down and making a little space to stop. Notice. Walk our talk. Widen our cognitive map. Live in accordance with what we truly feel is important for a good life.

This time of year, all mucky and dark outside, is actually a good time to pause, reflect, and plan for how we will show up in 2023. We can do our best to make it a year that we will look back upon in 2024 with satisfaction, meaning, good relationships, integrity, and joy. We might also take some pleasure knowing that we had a hand in creating a community others brag about.

How might we intentionally create space in our busy lives and minds, slow down, be present, aware, ready and able to help others (and ourselves) journey together to the Good Life?


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