“I looked down at that guy, and he was me”

During WWII, one of the guards of a women’s prison in Poland sliced through his own skin, to save the life of a stranger.

It must have been ten or fifteen years ago that I read about this in the altriusm section of a psychology textbook. I have never forgotten it.

One of the female prisoners had come down with lesions all over her body. No treatment would be available to her. And, if it were discovered that she had these lesions, it was very likely that she would be killed.

This particular guard regularly snuck in food to the underfed inmates.

But his actions, on cutting his skin, crossed over a line.

He did not know what illness caused these lesions on the prisoner’s body. But this guard, believing that without medicine she would die, cut into his own skin and infected himself with her blood.

He, too, came down with the lesions.

As a guard, he was able to get treatment.

He shared that medicine with the dying inmate.

And both survived the war.

Long after the war was over, he was asked why. Not knowing what her illness might do to him, why did he infect himself? Why did he risk his own life to save hers?

He said that he could not imagine ever having to explain to his children that this had happened, and that he had done nothing.

I was reminded of this story last night, at former Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson‘s lecture at the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium in Vancouver. Her mostly-unexciting speech did have some thought-provoking sections, and one of them was her thoughts on the people she had met who had been recipients of bravery medals.

In moments of crisis, she observed, differences between people ceased to matter.

In whatever culture, whatever state of wealth or poverty, in a fire or an accident or a disaster, there seems to be a consistency of response. When a fellow human being’s life is at risk, an individudal will put their life on the line to save the life of a total stranger.

There is a primal instinct toward survival of the species, a primal connectedness somehow, to all of humanity. In these moments of crisis, the human species is all one.

Ms. Clarkson remembered, once, addressing a man who had smashed through a window or sunroof of a burning or sinking car and struggled to pull a stranger to safety.

Why did he do it?

“I looked down on that guy,” he told her, “and he was me.”

Ms. Clarkson, co-founder of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship in Toronto, mused that there must be some lesson in these acts of altruism – lessons we might be able to apply to the ways that we manage the ethnic and cultural differences within our communities and within our country.

In moments of absolute crisis, she observed, there is no ‘other’, no ‘otherness’.

Not all think a country with ethnic diversity is a good thing. Ms. Clarkson spoke of a discussion in France, when she was Governor General. A politician of some stature, as I recall, said, well of course we in Canada can support multiculturalism – “you’re already mongrel-ized”.

But many of us in Canada feel very strongly about multiculturalism (or whatever you want to call it – in an oddly unexplained comment, Ms. Clarkson said she finds the term too political, that it makes her uncomfortable). I was taught by my family and my country that tolerance and acceptance of difference is one of the core elements of my identity, and one of which I ought to feel most proud.

In what ways might a society connect to that basic altruistic instinct that exists within all of us, that ‘they are me’, and ‘they are us’?

How can a society tap into that instinct and guide its citizens to apply that lesson to better accept differences, and embrace ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, cultural harmony, pluralism?

What kinds of policies might encourage this?

Is it realistic / ethical /possible to explore this idea without triggering nervousness about social engineering?

Is there anything in this that might aid us in marketing multiculturalism & diversity acceptance? What ‘product’ might be created to take this forward as a social marketing initiative?

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