The Responsibility of the Bystander

I’m sitting in front of the television flashing images on every station showing collapsed buildings, homes, and a school. Faces covered in dirt and mud streaked clean by tears of physical and emotional pain and over and over again I hear stories, stories of loss and heroics, stories of teachers throwing their bodies over their students to protect them from falling debris, stories of neighbors opening the doors to their shelters at the last minute to allow strangers to take refuge. I break my gaze and look out the window and see a bright, sunny day with birds singing, lawnmowers humming in the distance, and the juxtaposition is disorienting. I just want to turn off the TV, crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head and pretend nothing exists beyond my sheltered cocoon.  But I can’t do that, I won’t do that so I keep watching  and end up asking myself the same question I have been asking for the past few months.


I think for most of us, it is the first response we have when disaster strikes. Sure, we all have our opinions that attempt to answer that question. We all had them when we saw what happened at Sandyhook, we all attempted to understand the motivations behind the Boston Marathon bombings, and in the next few days and weeks we’ll all come to our own conclusions about how best to deal with the ongoing threats of Mother Nature. But, as I said before, these are just our opinions. And as it has been said, “never trust a person who claims to be in possession of the truth” because why is still the only honest response when we are confronted with tragedy. And just as why is the ultimate question when we are literally and figuratively rocked from our foundations, the ultimate and only legitimate answer to that question is another question. But unlike why, this question has a clear answer, it is;


What gives us the power that is seemingly taken away by the why. It moves us from shock into action.  It takes us from a place of helplessness and confusion to a stance of courage and resilience.

What can I do?

What should I do?

What next?

Each one of these questions are the obligation of the unaffected, those of us who have had the fortune to simply watch the tragedies unfold on a screen, we owe it to those victims and heroes to involve ourselves in their pain by asking these questions. What puts the obligation of the answer squarely on us and no one else, no politician, religious leader, or corporation. It’s a question we are forced to answer in our own hearts. I encourage you to accept the responsibility of the bystander, to find 10 minutes today to ask yourself these three “what” questions. The answer may be as simple as texting REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10.00 to the relief effort, or it could be spearheading a supply drive in your community once some of the needs have been made aware. And as we have seen through in the aftermaths of both Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy that helping hands will be needed for years to come.

So however you choose to respond, just make sure you choose to respond with action and not opinion, with love and compassion, with humility and courage. We onlookers will never know why…never. But we can know what, in fact it is the only thing in this life that we have complete control over.  While it will always be in our nature to ask why? we really don’t have the right. Only those tear-stained faces, their communities and their families can ask that question. As for the rest of us, if we’re not asking what then we’re missing the opportunity to fully embrace our humanity by reaching out to the broken among us. And we might as well turn off the TV, crawl back into bed and pretend that our cocoon will protect us from one day being the ones to have to ask the question,


 Erik Ewing is the Program Director for The Authenticity Project; you can contact Erik at