First, I felt some shame that I’d been fooled so easily.
The man on a bike had approached me from the street while I was on the pavement. He was on a bike. He pointed to his arm. There was what looked like a fairly sizeable gash, and blood coming out.
“I had a bike accident, I need to go to the hospital, I want to take a black cab, do you have £5?”
I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but it resulted in me deciding to hand him the £10 that happened to be in my pocket, with a wish that he get help.
Almost as soon as he rode off on his bike, my rational mind kicked in again.
“So,” it said, “he’s riding off on the bike, huh?”
“Seems quite comfortable too as he smoothly makes his way down the street. Surely he could ride to a nearby hospital on that? Oh, look, he just went past the ambulance station there on your right.”
“And he’s now stopped by these two other people… look at that, they’re now going to the cashpoint nearby to get him more cash.”
There was a bit of anger, directed at myself first, for falling for it so easily. And then I tried to see what the anger was protecting. It really felt like I was not entirely conscious while the brief conversation had happened. I’d reacted without really allowing my analytical mind to do what it’s good at: analyse things, with skepticism if called for, and come to a decision that I can justify. And within seconds after the man had ridden off, it had flicked back on and I could immediately see that I’d been taken advantage of.
I wasn’t so much angry at being taken advantage of, as at the effortless ease with which it had happened. As I considered the scenario, I saw that probably, what had happened was something along the lines of the sight of another injured human overriding any sense of suspicion, the desire to help a fellow human being who’s been physically hurt being more immediately important than considerations of being conned.
It had worked marvellously well. The guy on the bike looked homeless, but this was a masterful interpersonal hack, a devilish use of a fundamentally good impulse in all (or most) of us: the impulse to help someone who’s obviously injured. Perhaps he had been a psychologist in a past life.
The true but boring thing to discuss here would be how this ultimately harms all of us. I’ll take it as granted that if you’re still reading, you’re the kind of person who sees that making this fundamental impulse untrustworthy helps no one, least of all a homeless person. It’s a variant of the “crying wolf” story. Some day he (or someone else) might be genuinely injured and dying on the street and not get help because people think it’s a con. I think we all get that. We also all get the stupidity of a society that arrives at this: a homeless person probably deliberately hurting themselves in order to make cash by taking advantage of good human impulses, because that still works and begging doesn’t. It’s tragic, and fairly obvious.
I’m more interested in the feelings it left me with. I felt shame, which was self-directed anger, because of this, and when I stayed with the anger instead of shaming it in turn (“Shame is bad anger! Go away shame!”), I saw that what the anger was protecting was the innocence of being able to just trust that someone who’s injured needs help. That innocence is beautiful, and I want to preserve it and protect it. I want to be able to help an obviously injured person without thinking about it, without considering whether I’m being conned.
And the reality of the world, that the fellow on the bike proved in a few moments, is that I cannot. I guess he gave me a useful lesson for my £10.
Or rather, I can preserve this innocence in some way, but, if I want to be sensible, it needs to be in a bubble that also contains some self-awareness and skepticism. No, you can’t trust a random guy on a bike with a wound on his arm to not be trying to fool you.
Will that result in me being less helpful when someone genuinely needs help? I hope not. My analytical mind is flawed, like anyone’s, but it’s probably going to be fairly good at deciding whether the situation I’m faced with is genuinely an emergency, whether I have time to ascertain some facts, etc. I think reasonably quickly, so I don’t think anyone will suffer greatly from me not disabling my analytical thinking when I meet an injured person. If anything, it might even save me or others. After all, the advice I was taught in First Aid training back many years ago was that the first thing you should do when you enter a space where there is someone injured or unconscious is stop, then think of whether there are any remaining sources of danger (e.g. an electrified floor, or a person who’s still in process of being electrocuted), before you rush to their aid.
So what am I trying to say here?
I guess I want to show compassion to myself for being conned in this simple way. It was the innocent young boy inside of me that got fooled there. That’s ok. I want to show compassion to the part of me that wants to protect that innocence. I also want to show compassion to the part of me that wishes I could retain that innocence. I also want to show compassion to the part of me that knows that the world is more complicated than that and that it is important to build boundaries where they make sense, and this is one of these places.
I share this in the hope that you can also feel compassion for yourself, and your various levels of reactions, the next time you, inevitably, get taken advantage of.