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Kittredge: Bystander No More

I’ve recently spent some time in New York City welcoming our newborn grandson, tending his three little sisters, cooking and trying to reassure their parents that everything really was going to be okay. Then one night, when all was quiet, I was awakened at 2am by a woman screaming below on 86th Street. Ricocheting off the tall buildings, her shouts made it sound as if she were no more than ten feet away from me.

It crossed my mind to call 911, but I assured myself that surely someone else had already done so. Somewhat shocked, I was reminded of the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, and what has become known as “the bystander effect.” Still, I did nothing but stare into the pools of light on the deserted, wet street until all was silent again. And then I went back to sleep.

In the morning my son-in-law and I talked about it and he sheepishly admitted - seasoned New Yorker that he is - that he’d actually been tempted to yell “Shut up!” out the window. Neither of us was proud of how we’d behaved.

That night has stayed with me because I think it’s indicative of my recent almost complete withdrawl from current events. Of late my intentional practice of self care has been to not read the New York Times or - I can’t believe I’m admitting this - listen to or watch the news. I figured that if I were to maintain any measure of peace and tranquility during this politically uncertain time, I needed to withdraw.

But a new reality is upon us and I can no longer avoid taking some responsibility for the future. Worse even than a mere bystander, I’ve been an ostrich with my head shoved deep in the sand - not even willing to watch.

And I know that if I love this country - which I do - I’ll have to figure out how to be part of what happens rather than pull the covers over my head yet again. It may mean some variation of calling 911, but it may mean much more than that – like taking to the street to stand by anyone being attacked.

And so I’ll march in Montpelier on Saturday – and summon the courage to be a bystander no more.

Susan Cooke Kittredge is Associate Pastor of the Charlotte Congregational Church.
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