Grab that Dog by the Ears if You Need To

Like a muddied spring or a polluted well is a righteous woman who gives way to the wicked.

Proverbs 25:26

Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.

Proverbs 26:17

The first proverb is the original version of that modern maxim, “Bad things happen when good people fail to act.” But it’s not just when good people fail to act, there is a certain category of actions that is just as bad as no action at all – avoidance, running away, turning a blind eye – these are all actions that have the net effect of failing to act.

Evil builds in us quite early a strong prohibition to standing up against it with that one little word, “tattletale.” Nobody wants to be called that! And however right you are in blowing the whistle, you can’t ever do it without a nagging second-grader in your conscious or subconscious taunting you with, “Tattletale, tattletale.”

Well, stuff a sock in that brat’s mouth and do the right thing anyway. People want to know what’s wrong with the world today? In my opinion, giving way to evil is it.

Back in the day when I was taking Psych 101, they were still telling the story of Kitty Genovese, the young woman in Queens, New York, who was raped and killed over a 30-minute-long attack that was overheard or seen, in part, by 38 people who did nothing about it. It happened in 1964, which makes it seems like ancient history, but her killer, Winston Moseley, was actually up for parole last year, denied and now up for it again in 2010. A businessman, Moseley woke in the middle of the night deciding he wanted to kill a woman. Call him crazy! He was – a necrophiliac to be precise. He left his wife sleeping in the bed and prowled Queens until he found Kitty.

Kitty was the manager of a bar and had just driven herself home at 3 a.m., parking 100 feet in front of her apartment. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly unusual about that – a lot of women today have jobs that let out in the middle of the night – I had a couple myself in college – and it’s not unusual to have to walk 100 feet from the parking lot to your front door, especially in an apartment complex. Kitty didn’t do anything to bring this on herself. Moseley had never met her before; she just happened to be the unlucky person he found while out hunting for a victim.

Moseley stabbed her in the back and Kitty started to scream. One person shouted out to Moseley to “Let that girl alone!” and he ran off. The police may have been called but if so, they didn’t respond. Seriously injured, Kitty drug herself toward her apartment. Moseley returned looking for her, found her, stabbed her some more and raped her. After the rape, a neighbor called the police. Kitty died en route to the hospital. She woke the neighbors with her screams; some even had to turn up their radios to drown out the screams. More than a dozen neighbors confessed to having heard Kitty or seen her struggle but didn’t even lift the phone to call the police. They admitted they didn’t want to “get involved.” When this came to light in a New York Times article, it spurred a flurry of interest and study of the psychological processes at work in those people, and their lack of action later became formerly known as “the bystander effect” or “Kitty Genovese” syndrome.

This story always shocks people when they first hear it. No one reacts by saying, “I can totally understand how so many people wouldn’t do anything!” No. Everyone always says something like, “How is it possible that so many people would do nothing?” and especially when it was their very own neighbor who was being attacked. And yet we know how it’s possible if we’ll only think to a time in our own lives when we saw some wrong being committed and did nothing.

Have you ever heard someone tell a lie and let them get away with it? Of course, the consequences aren’t as dire as in Kitty’s case, but that same feeling you’re having when you’re listening to a lie and failing to do something about it is what Kitty’s neighbors probably felt. If you don’t have the courage to meet a little lie head on, do you think you could stand up to a rape or murder going on outside your door? That’s a lot scarier – your own safety feels at risk. You imagine yourself having to ID the perpetrator, testify in court, you imagine him coming after you when he gets out of prison – all that runs through your head while your hand rests on the phone. Should you pick it up and call? Then there’s that little devil saying, “This is none of your business, you busy body!” and “This probably isn’t serious – just some kids playing.” All of the sudden, there seem to be a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t do anything and hardly any reason why you should.

When I lived in Georgia, one night around midnight, there was a knock on my door. It was a crying woman, asking if she could use the phone to call the police. She said her boyfriend had beaten her up and dropped her off right in front of my house. In the 10 seconds it took me to frame my response, a hundred things went through my mind and the one that was most pressing was, “What if this is a trick and that man she’s talking about is waiting for me to open the door, they both rush in and attack my daughter and me.” Even if she wasn’t in cahoots with the evildoer, he could be still lurking about and when he saw I had aided her, he might come after me! I had no weapons of any kind – I never have – and in my wooded neighborhood, no one could even hear me scream. God gave me the good idea to call the police for the woman and tell her she could wait on my porch until they came, but I didn’t open the door. It wasn’t until the police arrived about 10 minutes later – the longest 10 minutes – that I realized she was telling the truth. I watched out my window while she got into the squad car, looking like she’d been beaten up. I felt badly about not having done more for her, but I was protecting myself and my young daughter.

You see, where the rubber hits the road, not everything is so cut and dry. Even against a little lie, when there is no danger to you, standing up in the face of wrong still takes a lot more courage than most people can muster. I know from many experiences though, there are no regrets about doing the right thing, about getting involved to right wrongs even when it’s none of your business. You can go to sleep that night and every night after knowing that you did the right thing. You didn’t cower to intimidation; you didn’t let fear overcome you. And you will find that it gets easier to do the more you practice. Sadly, the more you look the other way, the easier that gets too.

Hold this thought: God, give me courage to stand up for what’s right.

Hey wait! What about the other proverb? Is it contradictory to the first verse? I placed these side by side to draw the distinction between getting involved to help and getting involved to add to the problem. There are a lot of things that are none of our bees wax. How can we tell the difference?

When you come upon a situation, use your good judgment to discern if you can make a positive difference. Does someone need help you are able to give? Does the situation need a mediator? Can you effectively fill that role? However, be aware that you may be prejudiced in how you judge a situation, depending on your own feelings of self-worth or egoism.

Another way in which there are two types of people: There are those who will underestimate their value to help others – Shying Violets (SVs) and those who will overestimate their value – Ms. Fixits (Ms.Fs). Learn your disposition and try to compensate for it as you’re applying your best judgment in deciding if you should involve yourself.

Most importantly, listen for the Holy Spirit and the voice of Wisdom encouraging you to get involved or stay out of it. When your alter-ego (SV or Ms. F) has a strong voice, it can be hard to know what you’re hearing. Is that SV, Ms. F or is that Wisdom?

Here’s a quick test for SVs: If you hear a voice cautioning you against getting involved, that’s probably SV speaking to you. If you hear a voice encouraging you to make the move and get involved, that’s probably Wisdom. Quick test for Ms. Fs: You hear a voice that’s already working on the solution that you need to impart – that’s Ms. F. If you hear a voice telling you to slow down and see if maybe the situation can be resolved without you, that’s probably Wisdom.

Of course, there are those urgent situations in which you need to analyze later and act now – you don’t want to be going through this mental exercise as your best friend is choking on a piece of chicken! Those tests are more for quarrels, to which our proverb refers, and not so much for situations in which there is a clear moral imperative or someone’s health and well being immediately at stake.

Hold this thought too: God, give me the wisdom to know when to mind my own business.

Read a summary of the many interesting aspects of Kitty Genovese’s case at or for more in-depth reading try Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case By A. M. Rosenthal, A.M. ISBN 0-520-21527-3.

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