Unbranching Personal Narratives

written by David Steffen

When I was about nine years old I was out at a story with my older brother who would’ve been about eighteen years old at the time. I think it was around Christmastime and there were a few inches of snow and ice on the ground. As we were walking out of the store, minds casting ahead to what we were going to do at home. Before we got to the car, a woman walking alone ahead of us slipped and fell on the ice, ending up flat on her back ahead of us.

If anyone had asked, I would’ve considered myself a compassionate person. But my kneejerk reaction was that we would keep on walking. But, to my surprise, my brother stopped and made sure she was okay. She was capable of responding and had no apparent injury. We helped her up to her feet. Some other people came over to check she was okay and then we were on our way. She was okay and no harm done, but of course I didn’t know that at the time.

That incident comes up in my mind from time to time, especially at times when I have a chance to help someone. I expect my brother doesn’t remember it. The woman probably doesn’t remember it either. But it comes to mind when I have an opportunity to help someone, so I don’t make the same mistake. It was a formative moment even though it probably wasn’t significant to anyone else.

From time to time I wondered why I acted that way at the time? I thought of myself as a compassionate person. So why didn’t I even think to help? I learned the Golden Rule in school and believed it was right, and if I fell I’d want someone to check that I was okay. The best explanation that I can think of is that I was focused on my own personal life narrative and I didn’t see how this stranger fit in–I was ready to get on to the next scene. But that’s no way to go about life. Everyone has their own storyline and maybe sometimes you’re just playing a bit role in someone else’s story–maybe no one will even remember it, maybe they will, but doesn’t matter.