Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A moral choice

It was cold in Boston today--about 10 degrees as I walked across the Public Garden. The Garden has a bridge over the pond where the Swan Boats promenade in spring and summer. As I crossed it, I noticed that a person was lying on one of the benches about 5o yards from my path. He--it was most likely a man--was wrapped from head to toe in a red quilt, probably of the kind that movers use to pad furniture. From where I walked I could not see what was under the quilt.

I debated whether to go over and see if he was all right. I know from my friend Bob, who is homeless, that the slatted benches can be dangerous on cold nights, because they allow air to circulate below as well as above a sleeping person. I noticed that the figure was completely wrapped, that the quilt extended even beyond head and feet, and I told myself that the man on the bench was probably all right, that he might resent being roused (it was probably a little before 7:30 a.m.), and maybe he was drunk or crazy, too. And I walked on. I was fully conscious that I could have made certain that the person under that quilt was safe, or as safe as he could be on the streets in winter, but I did not want the hassle that having contact with him might entail. So I continued to walk.

A little farther, in the Boston Common, I came across a couple of guys that I have seen almost every morning that I've walked for the past couple of weeks. One of them is older, grizzled'; he's never said anything to me. The younger man, dressed neatly in a New York Giants jacket and jeans, with a trimmed beard and moustache, is friendly and I've got used to acknowledging his presence and saying hello as I pass. Neither of them has ever asked for money, and they don't have a cup or a box for handouts. Today, I asked the younger man if they'd been out all night. No, he said, they'd been at a night shelter. They were killing a few hours between that and the time when they could go to Emmanuel Church for the day. I asked how long he'd been on the street and he said about three months. He told me that he used to work in the auto parts business. He mentioned that he's had social workers, but it's tough to get a job when you're in a shelter each night. I pulled out my wallet and gave them some money--more than a buck, but not a lot of money--and suggested that they get something to eat.

Was I more generous than usual because of the cold, or because I was guilty about passing that man on the bench? I don't know.

You may have heard that the newly appointed archbishop of Warsaw was forced to resign his post, because it was revealed that he had cooperated with the Communist secret police. As far as is known, his cooperation was minor, and did not endanger anyone. In an Editorial Observer piece in yesterday's New York Times, Serge Schmemann commented on the Wielgus case, and how "surviving in that world, especially for anyone in a position of authority, presented excruciating choices, again and again." The truth is that we all make moral choices, every day, and as we do not live in totalitarian states or face immediate danger, our choices seldom require courage. In most cases, we never recognize that we have even made a choice. In those where we do, I suspect that most of us find that most of the time we come up short of the mark that we think we have set for ourselves.

When I was a college freshman, I went to a talk by the Yugoslav historian Vladimir Dedijer, who spoke about his time in the resistance to the Nazis. One of the things I remember about that talk was when Dedijer said that he did not blame the people who were captured and broke under torture. "You cannot go to the barricades 365 days a year," he said. At times of crisis and stress, when I cannot summon the energy to carry on the struggle, those words have given me comfort. The choice I made this morning, however, cannot be rationalized with such a brave slogan.

What will I do if I see that figure on the bench tomorrow? I just hope he will have moved somewhere else.

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