São Paulo in the middle of the day, I held six-year-old Ivy’s hand while Mike walked up ahead with eight-year-old Emilia in bright sunshine and heavy heat.
A man dressed in suit and tie walked toward us on the sidewalk. As he neared, I noticed something on his forehead. And as we passed him, we saw that he had recently had the shit kicked out of him. He bled from cuts on his face and head and hands, and likely other places beneath his suit.
He looked scared, shaken up, in need of a fair amount of gauze, but not seriously wounded. We knew that whatever altercation happened had taken place within the previous half hour.
He spoke to us, but we held our daughters’ hands tightly and walked on by.
I would spend the next few hours thinking of all the things I should have done, even if only to say, “I don’t speak Portuguese,” as an explanation for our complete failure to help him in some way. I would justify my inaction by a million different means.
At the very least, the man had been the victim of a violent mugging. I’ll never know if there was more to the story, or how he came to be in that state. But I still wonder why I behaved the way I did. As time passes, the memory gets worse. I see myself gawking at his misery and shuffling my daughter quickly down the street.
What was I afraid of? Certainly not this man, who looked beaten and broken and afraid. Was it fear of the unknown, because of my ignorance of the situation? Fear for my daughters, placing them in proximity to violence, even if the danger had passed?
This memory comes to mind far more often than memories of when I behaved appropriately, putting aside fear to do what I thought was right. This sounds selfish, but I want to help strangers not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also to eliminate the haunting guilt that comes in the aftermath of inaction.
I still think about that man on the street in São Paulo. I wish him well.