Ethics & Christian living

When good people do nothing

“All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” Edmund Burke

‘This city desert makes you feel so cold, it’s got so many people but it’s got no soul’  Jerry Rafferty, Baker Street

Last Friday I was getting the tube home from work and as normal, I got on the Jubilee Line at Bond Street.  It was about 5.30pm and it was packed full of people.  I was one of the first into the carriage and behind me there was the usual melee of people trying to squeeze in. 

As the beeping began and the doors closed, it was clear that there was some kind of problem.  I heard a woman from the platform shouting with clear panic in her voice:

‘Let me in, open these doors…I am his carer’

From within the carriage, you could hear barely understandable moans of someone clearly distressed.  As the train pulled away, the woman on the platform was shouting

‘Get off the next stop, GET OFF AT THE NEXT STOP’.

Alone in London

It was only after we had set off that I realised that there was a young disabled man on the carriage who had become separated from his Carer.  He was all alone in a packed tube train.  Although there were about 20 people between us but I could just see him from where I was standing.

He was clearly agitated and very worried.  He was glancing around anxiously and making low moaning noises and sudden jerky movements.

The train rattled nosily towards the next station Green Park.

I craned my neck to see if anyone was helping him – especially those standing next to him. 

Some other passengers were clearly aware of what had happened.  You could sense the familiar awkwardness that occurs when people know they should do something.  But no one did do anything.  They buried their noses in their Evening Standard or their Kindles, fiddling with their smartphones or talked with their friends.  

No one did anything to help him.  No one said anything, no one offered any support. It was a packed train but he was alone.

It made me so angry.

What should you do?

As it pulled into Green Park I squeezed through past people and got off the train with him.  I introduced myself and we sat down on the seats on the packed platform.  He told me his name was Richard and he kept saying:

‘I got split from my carer, I got split from my carer.’ 

I asked him if he wanted me to sit and wait with him.  He said plainly:

‘Yes please…I am a bit worried.’ 

The next train was not due in for 4 minutes and Richard began to relax a bit as I tried to reassure him.  All the time I was silently thinking ‘I hope she arrives on the next train’.   If I am honest, I began wondering where this all might lead to, about what time I might get home and what it would mean for my Friday night plans.

When the next train pulled in it was packed and as people piled out I stood on the seat trying to look see her get off the train.  But I could not see anyone.  Once again, the platform emptied and Richard’s anxiety re-emerged

‘Where is she? Where is she?’

Then finally, she turned up, breathless and a bit embarrassed.  Richard and his carer embraced at being reunited.  They both looked mightily relieved.

I tried not to show it, but I was hugely relieved as well.  And I got a hug too.

‘The appalling silence of good people’

I don’t want to re-tell these events to make myself out to be a hero.  I wasn’t – all I did was talk to someone and it only took up 5 minutes of my time.

But no one else did anything to help Richard.   I am sure the carriage was full of good people – people who are kind to their friends and family and would like to see themselves as caring.  But this goodness was not enough for them to do anything. 

Maybe it was busyness, a long day, eagerness to get home, maybe it was nervousness about getting involved or self-consciousness around people with disabilities.  There are always plenty of reasons to walk by on the other side.

I know this was just one encounter in a particular time and place. But it was like a little illustration of the selfishness and apathy which helps maintains injustice.  As well as Burke’s famous quote, it reminded me of Martin Luther King’s words written from prison in 1963:  

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Related articles: Apathy is Happy (when it wins without a fight)

14 thoughts on “When good people do nothing”

  1. Sorry, Jon, but you ARE a hero for doing what you did! 🙂

    What is wrong with our society that people are so fearful they won’t risk helping out a stranger? The answer is long and complicated. I would like to think that I’d do the same thing that you did, but unfortunately, as a woman, I might have succumbed to irrational fears for my own safety. But God knows our fears and insecurities and it is his greatest longing that we would rise above them in order to serve/love our neighbour.

    Onward, Christian soldier. You’re doing good work. You, and many others, are an inspiration to me as I endeavour to encourage my congregation to stand up for the weak.


  2. Okay, God dropped that one on me: I’m applying for training as a “Rettungssanitäter” or an Energency Medical Technician in English, partly because I’ve been in situations like this but held back because I was afraid something would happen and I wouldn’t know what to do. I was beginning to waver on my application (Lots of paperwork and worse, injections ahead) but you’ve jus reminded me to keep moving an get the tools to help people in this sort of situation.


  3. I thought I’d donate my favourite Dr. Seuss quote and share my thoughts around today’s blog (which is a riveting read and is powerfully emotional too).

    “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better…. It’s not”.

    There are a carriage load of fellow human beings who should read that quote and absorb the simple wisdom of the ‘Lorax’……

    It’s good to be blessed. It’s better to be a blessing.

    I share your anger about the lack of response and feel that your presence was a blessing for both the young man and the carer. I can’t help but be curious as to what would have happened if you hadn’t stepped forward. Could all of those people really continue to turn a blind eye to reality and bury their heads deeper into the false world of Metro/Standard/Kindle? How long could they have tolerated a vulnerable man’s desperation and stood by as an already distressed human being grew increasingly anxious? Thankfully, we (and the young man in question) will never know the answer.

    That evening, as well as being a man who is blessed, you also became a blessing and the capacity to do so is what differentiates you from the hordes in that carriage. I’m sure other people initially wondered ‘why isn’t somebody doing something?’……. but you were the only one capable of being somebody. Somebody that that stood out from the crowd, somebody that cared and somebody whose actions mattered a great deal to this young man and his carer. Your humility around not wanting to be viewed as a hero is commendable……. But it is something in which you have no choice. I’m certain in my heart that the two people that experienced your kindness last Friday will view you as an immense hero and although being heroic wasn’t your intention…….your actions most definitely defined selfless heroism.
    I always loved the quote from Mohammed Ali who once said “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth“. It feels to me as if the people who ignored this man’s plight were (in that moment) freeloading squatters on the planet earth, whereas you may well have earned your keep eternally.

    I’m proud of you and feel inspired by your actions. I’d like to think that I would have acted the same way as you, but I guess I’ll never know. What I do know now, having read of your experience, is that I’d find it harder to act the same way as the rest of the people in that carriage.


  4. Great post Jon,

    Just as your post is a good reminder to me to be that person, I’m sure your actions were a reminder to the people on the tube.

    I know why people generally don’t help. I think that generally, people do good things to get good things back, but that changes when you have received grace. We’ve been looking at this in our home group – currently studying Tim Keller’s Gospel in Life.


    1. hey Dave – good to hear from you and that man Keller speaks some good sense.

      I do worry though about how much Christians are better than others at helping. I hope we are but so often I hear people talk about grace in very ungraceful ways. Keller is a man worth listening to on the subject!


  5. I’ve had one of those weeks where this kind of thing has been poking at me. We did a one off night shelter with Andy’s old church. Three men turned up and I’ve seen two of them, one twice, in the city centre in the last week. None of the three times have I stopped and said hello because I have no idea what to say/do and it’s been on my mind ever since. I think a lot of our ‘apthy’ is not that at all, but blind panic and a lack of knowledge as to how to relate to people we don’t normally hang out with.


    1. Thanks Nem – good to reflect on real situations and I guess in their different ways, homeless people or disabled people set off fears in people about what the right way to respond is. I know how homeless people can be demanding – asking for things, deliberately looking to provoke reactions and its stressful if you are not confident about how to respond.

      I think apathy always sounds like it is code for ‘can’t be bothered’ whereas fears and anxiety lie behind loads of situations where people don’t know what to do. I think its really worth talking and sharing the anxieties provoked with others because these helps bring them out and work through them.


  6. This is really sad Jon but SO familiar – trains are very exposing places. I’m not sure there’s many other places in society you get to see everyone’s reactions close up and then often see people walk away from helping others. Something similar happened to me with an elderly man with parkinson’s where everybody on the train – mostly young people in their business suits – would not look round and see his need and give him a seat, when I did, a young american man was so shamed he gave me his seat.. or was he just taking advantage of being chivalrous to a young woman, but the elderly man had no appeal?!?

    I wonder how more often these “passing by” events happen in the rest of life when no-one’s there to see.



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