Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Helping angels in distress

I was heading up Angeles Crest the other night, taking Sabine home from her dance class. We were flying along listening to some haunting lyrics: “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars/I could really use a wish right now.…”

We passed a lady stranded in a broken-down car parked in the center of the highway between the northbound and southbound lanes. We made a U-turn at the junction of Olive and headed back to see how we could help. Stranded between the flow of speeding vehicles on a dark night, it seemed that she could really use a wish. The lady used my cell phone and called Triple A. I told the lady I would take Sabine home and then be right back to hang with her till the cavalry came.

With a puzzled expression on her face the woman said to me, “There must have been 100 cars go by and no one would stop and help.”

The thought of a lady stranded on Angeles Crest amid the flow of traffic on a dark night hit me like a cross-town bus. What is that about? Why didn’t anyone come to her aid?

Does anyone remember the story of Kitty Genovese?

In March 1964 in New York City, Kitty was stabbed repeatedly in front of her Queens apartment until she died. There were reportedly 38 witnesses who had knowledge of what was occurring. They did nothing. They didn’t even call the police. At one point, the assailant left while Kitty was dying on the street. Still no one helped her. He returned five minutes later and continued his assault, departed again, and then returned a third time to finish her off.

The killing of Kitty Genovese became symbolic of all that was wrong with society. Shortly after her murder, newspapers and magazines printed a series of stories highlighting the apathy and callousness of humanity. Her story became a parable. Kitty’s death had been absorbed into the vast psychological database of human behavioral science to be studied, analyzed, picked apart in classrooms and written about in college textbooks. Her case came to symbolize a lack of responsibility where everyone is too frightened, or too selfish, to help another person.

Attempting to rationalize the fact that no one would help, social scientists have attributed labels to this malady, calling it the Bystander syndrome, or the Diffusion of Responsibility syndrome.

“I didn’t want to get involved,” said the witnesses. Martin Gansberg, a writer for the New York Times, held up a mirror castigating personal apathy as cowardice. He wrote, “Our daily routine takes precedence over noticing a woman under your feet, face down in a pool of her own blood.”

Inaction is complicit with evil. Has virtue atrophied from humanity?

I don’t mean to sound preachy. But I remember the lack of self-respect that permeated through New York after the Kitty Genovese debacle. Consequently, I chose never to be one of those cold and timid souls who would not help. Captain Gavlick, my company commander, used to say, “The worst thing you can do is nothing.” We all have to step up and do what we can, no matter what. It’s a good feeling to be the cavalry.

My mom once told me that you must always help another in need, regardless of the circumstance. She would say, “What if God had sent an angel disguised as a person in distress? You have to help, because you’ll never know.”

Years later while studying the Old Testament, I stumbled upon a passage from Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angles unawares.” My mom never read Hebrews. She knew instinctively it was the right thing to do.

When you see another in distress, make sure you stop and see how you can help. You just never know. It could be an angel.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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