On the way up to Lake Tahoe there stood a couple in hiking gear, man and woman, standing together motioning the universal yet outdated hand sign asking for a ride.
I had not been paying full attention to the side of the road and only managed to catch the man’s eye as I passed them, a kind and gentle looking couple. Moments after the encounter stood an opportunity for me to pull over and park, greet the two hikers, and lend them some help. My initial instinct was to do exactly that: pull over and engage with the two friendly-looking people I had just observed. However my secondary thoughts told me the opposite: do not take in strangers, nobody hitchhikes nowadays, and today is nothing like it was 50 years ago. What would most people do? Remember all of the stories on the news about strangers with bad intentions? And by that time it was too late, I had continued driving just as every other car next to, in front of, and behind me, and there was not another opportunity to pull over until about thirty miles later.
This upsets me. Why did I not pull over, why did I not help make the days of these two individuals better, and most of all why did I not listen to my own values and ideals but rather the ones I am constantly told? Believing in the common humanity of all peoples is a core value that I try to hold true to myself and the people around me. Believing in the fundamental gentleness and goodness of all human beings is a core ideal that I will never renounce nor fail to respectfully argue for. In this instance I overlooked an opportunity to show behavioral compassion towards two individuals in honor of the most insane norm of our modern society: you are indebted to nobody but yourself. I do not blame myself or feel inadequate for adhering to the behavior of the rest of the cars on Highway 50, but am rather curious as to why I did so and why others tend to do just the same.
The majority of people will agree with the opinion that our world has developed into a more dangerous environment, thus behaviors involving solo venture or hospitality towards strangers are much more risky and should not be encouraged. In reality, however, our society is no more dangerous than it ever has been and our world (despite specific national and international conflicts) is a much safer place both given by example and statistics. Crime rates across the United States have decreased substantially as time goes by even among the rapid growth in our population, yet everyone seems to be on high alert at all times. Even though the federal database and sociological research have repeatedly shown that the nation we live in is fundamentally safe people still don’t seem to believe it. The fact of the matter is that we make many of our decisions based off of what is readily available to us, known as the availability heuristic (thank you science). And the evidence that is readily available to us when questioning the safety of our surroundings includes the terrifying reports of crime that are constantly sung to us by the media. What makes up the majority, if not all, of the news we hear? Assault, theft, murder, rape… And even though these incidences are in it of themselves extremely rare (no matter how terrible they are) they leave a lasting impression that often leads us to believe that our world is hostile, we are to look out for ourselves at all times, and people are inherently nasty.
Yet in face of the alarming experiential accounts that naturally grab my attention more than that of the positive, I first and foremost choose to believe in optimism, hope, and compassion. Some may say that it is naive to believe that we live in a kind and loving world, but in my opinion it is sad and ultimately limiting not to. In my twenty years of life negativity and skepticism has never proved beneficial towards finding new opportunities, pursuing a sense of contentment, or engaging in worthwhile experiences. So to the hikers on Highway 50 waiting for somebody to stick to their positive gut and face the world with an open smile: I wish the best to you both, and the next time I am privileged with an opportunity to help out another human being I promise to do what feels right.