Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Doing It Yourself

Spring of 1988 found me spending a number of weeks in a training class in downtown Oklahoma City. Not far from where the Alfred P. Murrah Federeal Building stood at the time, there was a lovely plaza that had an amphitheater surrounding a stage area. Along with ornamental flora, a number of complementary water features helped create a nice outdoor atmosphere in the middle of an urban area.

Spring weather found downtown workers emerging from underground tunnels that connect downtown buildings to take their lunches in the city’s park areas. The group I trained with often found its way to this pleasant amphitheater that was not far from our training facility.

The water features were dry in early spring. But one day when we went for lunch the fountains were functioning and there was clear chlorinated water running through the lazy river that wound around the stage area. The plaza was bustling with people who had come to enjoy lunch in these delightful surroundings. Among the crowd were a four-year-old boy and his father, whose arms were loaded with food from a nearby vendor.

While I was looking off in another direction, the man and his little son wandered near the lazy river on their way across the plaza. Neither the man nor the boy was paying close enough attention as the boy walked perilously close to the edge. I did not see it happen, but the boy’s foot slipped and he suddenly plunged into the water.

The water, which had seemed so serene and peaceful a moment earlier suddenly became a life threatening hazard for one little boy. I heard the splash and turned my head, but could not tell through all the commotion what was going on. I could see a man standing there with his arms loaded and with a look of complete horror on his face. He seemed completely unable to move. But I could also see one man from our group who had leaped up and had already cleared more than half of the distance between us and the river.

Larry was an interesting guy. He seemed fairly intelligent and genial, but his personal life consisted of a series of poor choices. I was frankly surprised that he had qualified for the training we were attending. But I didn’t know what was in Larry’s heart. He had been watching the man and the boy cross the plaza. He worried that their course was bringing the small boy too close to the water’s edge.

When the boy plunged into the river and Larry saw the man paralyzed with horror, he didn’t hesitate at all. He jumped up, ran about 15 feet, jumped into the river, and pulled the boy out before the child could suck down much water. A few minutes later the wet boy was frolicking around on the lawn. Larry didn’t think what he had done was any big deal. The water only came to his waist. Of course, it was over the boy’s head, and the little tyke didn’t know how to swim.

By the time I realized what was happening, Larry was handing the boy to his anxious father. The father didn’t know what to say. Larry had just saved the life of this man’s son. Another class member rustled up a towel, which Larry wrapped around himself for the duration of the afternoon class. Larry said that the discomfort from his wet pants was more than overcome by the warmth he felt inside.

I haven’t been back to Oklahoma City since that trip 19 years ago. I know not whether the plaza still exists or whether the water features remain unchanged. I imagine that our hyper safety conscious (and hyper litigious) society would no longer tolerate such a public hazard. But I learned several lessons from this experience.

I learned not to discount the good that an individual can do, even if that individual has made (and is still making) unfortunate choices. I learned that many people have built-in goodness. Larry showed me an example of being concerned about others. He didn’t know the people he helped, but he obviously felt that they were worth something; that human life has intrinsic value. It is worth making sacrifices and suffering inconveniences to help preserve life and to help others.

It is important to be observant. I was gandering off in another direction. I can’t remember what I was looking at. Larry saw a potential problem and watched to see if his assistance would be needed. This allowed Larry to formulate a plan somewhere in the back of his mind. When help was needed, there were over a hundred people close enough to do something, but only Larry moved without hesitation to provide the needed assistance. Larry didn’t wait for someone who was better qualified or more closely related to the boy. He took charge of the situation and did what he knew he could do.

These kinds of lessons can be applied broadly to good effect. It seems that society increasingly promotes the idea that we should leave matters to the professionals. Responsibility for others is taught, but less as a matter of direct involvement than as a matter of giving money so that the bureaucracy can properly handle matters — with proper training, of course. It seems there are classes of people that we are taught require ├╝ber attention, while other classes of people are not worth our time or attention. This causes the special attention-worthy classes to focus on themselves. They are robbed of the idea that they can do much for themselves. They come to expect others to solve many of their problems for them.

I don’t discount the amount of good that can be accomplished when efforts are combined. I have personally seen the benefits that derive from my involvement in these kinds of efforts. But there is much we can do ourselves. We can watch for opportunities and we can step up to do what we can ourselves. We can even organize others to help. Those that take initiative to help others are probably more likely to figure out ways to help themselves along the way.

I appreciate what I learned from Larry. He set a great example for me. And I think his example is a worthy one for everyone.

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