I feel guilty about leaving the man lying in the hospital car park
Motives for helping or not helping can sometimes be far from noble
Sometimes helping someone, or not, says more about you than about them. Photograph: Getty Images
Evening walks bring me through hospital grounds – a lively place with patients standing about in dressing gowns, smoking.
The other week, I had reached the staff car park when a man crossed the road, staggering. From his shoulder he carried the sort of bag in which you might keep a small laptop. He staggered past me into the car park and I walked on.
He’s going to fall, I said to myself then. From a safe distance I looked back as he half lay down and half collapsed on to the ground. I walked on again. Let sleeping citizens lie.
Then my mind began to get at me. What if he was, in fact, sick? This, after all, was a hospital. What if a car hit him? I would have to live with knowing I had watched him fall and had done nothing about it.
I turned back reluctantly. I saw he had fallen just off the the edge of the road so he was safe from getting run over. He lay on his back, eyes open, and looked at me. I asked him, in that ridiculous way you do, if he was okay.
“No, I am not okay,” he replied politely. I asked what was wrong? He was having a rest, he said. He was quite well spoken.
Had he taken anything?.
“No,” he said quite emphatically. “No drugs, nothing like that. Just some cocaine.”
He used the full word, cocaine, rather than coke, an unusual precision, I thought.
He didn’t want a fuss and he was waiting for a friend. Where was his friend to meet him? He answered as well as he could but the words were garbled. Then he mentioned his family, who he said he didn’t want to upset. There were wonderful people, quite fantastic. “When I’m having a bad day, they’re having a bad day, if you know what I mean.”
“I live here,” he added. I wondered what he meant by “here”. Again his words didn’t make any sense. Did he want me to tell somebody in the hospital about him? No, he would just wait here for a while.
He shook hands with me and I left.
What should I do?
He certainly didn’t want me to alert anybody in the hospital. On the other hand he was in no fit state to make any kind of rational decision. What would it look like if something happened to him and I had left him there?
Feeling guilty about it, I reported the situation to the man at reception. He would, he said, send “them” around. When I was walking out of the hospital grounds, I saw two security men were making their way toward the car park.
Why did I feel guilty? Because he had wanted to be left alone and my actions had been driven by fear of how I would feel if he died in the car park – not really by concern for him.
I recalled, then, a woman I had passed by in Dame Street in the centre of Dublin not too long previously. It was early evening and the street was, of course, crowded. She lay on her back on a pile of rubbish bags and looked as though she was sleeping. She was dressed as well as anyone else on the street. I assume that she had taken some drug that had sent her to sleep and I walked on.
I felt a bit guilty but she faded from my mind until the man in the car park triggered the memory. Why did I pass her by and not him? I suppose the difference was that on Dame Street everybody else was passing by her as well. I only had to join the rest of the crowd and walk on by.
So I learned something from the man in the car park about my motives for intervening or not intervening and that they have more to do with my feelings about myself than with my feelings about them. Not exactly noble.
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is “Mindfulness for Worriers”. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.