The Ethics of Doing Good

Last night after getting a primer on homelessness in the great city of Arlington, I found myself on a train with a passenger of questionable consciousness. 

Another concerned passenger called 911 and we were met at the next stop by two Metro employees who tried to help her off the train. 
She came to and shook her head several times, then murmured the name of her stop. 

The guy who called 911, I'll call him Doug, said he'd ride the train with her and make sure she'd get off safely at her stop. The Metro employees announced to our car that if she passes out, we should call 911 again. 

There was the usual chatter and energy of a post-happy hour Thursday night train ride, but many passengers kept glancing over at the lady with the fishnets, hair matted to her face, purse overturned, Metro card clutched in her hand. 

I asked Doug if he knew her. He said no and explained he'd gotten on the train at the same time she had, that she had been wobbly on her feet. Then the moment she took a seat on the train he watched her pass out to the point of drooling.

The train had thinned out by the time we reached her stop, but many people still had concerned eyes on her. A couple people helped her up and Doug stood behind her on the escalator to make sure she didn't fall. Yet another passenger chased after them to give the lady her dropped cell phone. 

As they exited the station, Doug was on his own with her so I followed closely. She still wobbled and was now fumbling with her phone. She kept looking at Doug like she didn't want him there but didn't say a word. Then she crossed the street against the light, tumbling onto the curb on the other side. 

Doug and I were there to help her up. He called 911 again, and although the woman tried to shake us off, we remained. At that point, I felt I was just there as Doug's moral support, although I wondered why he was taking it upon himself to see to her safety. 

She sat on the steps at the entrance of a park while Doug walked to the curb to wait for the ambulance. She stood up a couple of times and shooed me away, but when she was unsteady she let me hold her hand. I told her she was lovely and that we wanted to be sure she was safe, then she air-kissed me on the cheek. When the paramedics got there, she flipped them off and started uphill.

They didn't have the patience for her like we'd had, and as she took off stumbling they said they weren't going to chase her. Doug certainly wanted to, but instead we all watched her get to the intersection. The paramedics said they'd keep an eye on her for a bit, and I convinced Doug to move along. He had a ring on his finger, just as the stumbling lady had, and I imagined he had a family at home waiting for him to get there. 

So the ethical dilemma for me here is when do you say you've had enough, been inconvenienced enough? The fishnet lady hadn't wanted us around her at all, yet we might have prevented one or two traffic accidents by following her. 

When people don't want help, even when they need it, how to proceed? This experience was very much unlike my earlier evening in Arlington, where the conversation was about the best way to help end an urgent problem, with many community players - government, private industry, private citizens, religious organizations & nonprofit - all on board. 

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