Updated: Aug 4, 2018
The 'bystander effect' is a psychological phenomenon which suggests that the more people there are witnessing a person in distress, the less likely any of them are to help. It may be due to a diffusion of responsibility: "Other people are here. They can do the thing. That means I do not have to do the thing." Or it can be due to fear of misinterpreting a situation: "That boy is stuck in a fence. Other people are not removing him from the fence. Perhaps someone is making a movie about a boy who is stuck in a fence. I should also not remove him from the fence."
Luckily for me, the day that I was trapped on the third floor of a burning building, I was not a victim of the bystander effect. This may be down to the fact that there were no bystanders actually available. On the day in question, my street was suspiciously empty. Eventually Harry and Mary (my neighbours across the road) appeared and the fire brigade was alerted. I sat on the windowsill and waited. Approximately four centuries passed and nothing happened. Harry and Mary stared up at me. I stared back at them. Mary had exhausted all of the words of comfort she could think of to say and things were starting to get awkward. "I'm just going to go back in to... check on the fire," I explained, as though I had a tray of cookies in the oven.
The fire, as it turned out, was doing well. The glass panel above the door had cracked and the smoke was evading my defences and billowing through the room. I shoved a few more pillows into the pile and surveyed the scene. Upon my mother's antique dressing table I spotted an eyeliner pencil. I wasn't particularly skilled in the application of eyeliner. I had to wear it fairly often for dance competitions and shows and it always came out wonky or uneven. Now seemed as good a time as any to practise. I sharpened the pencil and positioned myself in front of the mirror.
With careful concentration, I began to draw the eyeliner across the bottom lid of my right eye. So far so good. The bottom bit was easy though, it was the top lid that I found particularly challenging. I closed my eye and held my breath and edged my way across the lashes. Just as I got to the centre the noise of glass shattering on the floor below startled me and jogged my hand. "No matter," I consoled myself, "just make the line thicker!" I picked up the pace in case of another interruption and soon enough both eyes were outlined in black. I assessed them proudly in the mirror. It was slightly more panda-like than I had been going for but still, it was my most successful application to date and I was pleased. I went back to the window to show Harry and Mary.
"Alas!" I gasped as I looked down upon the street, "a crowd of bystanders!" Finally a group of neighbours and passers by had gathered in front of the house and were gazing up in wonder at the blaze. I scanned over their faces briefly, witnessing a mixture of worry, sympathy and curiosity. Then I spotted Harry who was halfway up the driveway looking infinitely more distressed than the last time I had seen him. I could read in his eyes the frustration that he was feeling from being powerless to help. I knew that if it hadn't been for the two strokes which had severely restricted his mobility, he would be currently scaling the drainpipe in a heroic albeit ill-advised rescue attempt. As it was, he didn't even have the power of speech to communicate any of the things I knew he wanted to say.
I was trying to reassure him when a bystander on a bicycle emerged from the crowd. "HARRY, GET BACK," he yelled, "IT'S GONNA BLOW!" Now, I realise that they don't issue a manual of 'things to say in a crisis'. I also understand that most people are not experienced in emergency protocol but I would have thought it fairly obvious that the last thing you should yell when a person is trapped in a burning building is 'it's going to blow'. Especially when the building is not in fact going to blow. I glowered at the bystander on the bicycle. He didn't look like any sort of authority on the flammability of a terraced house and I wondered what exactly he felt qualified him to make such a dramatic announcement. Speaking of authorities on the flammability of terraced houses, where the hell were the firemen? I skulked back into the furnace to re-examine my eyeliner.
At that moment I realised that I was still in my pyjamas. What if a news crew turned up to capture my dramatic rescue? I certainly didn't want my first television appearance to be in pyjamas, I had better get dressed. The only problem was that I was trapped in my mother's room with no access to my own wardrobe. I started rifling through her clothes wondering if perhaps my pyjamas would be the better option after all. Eventually I settled upon a rather dashing combination, half pyjama half mother attire. I was just completing the ensemble with a fancy scarf when I heard the approach of sirens.
I took a last look at myself in the mirror and was surprised to see that my entire face was now black from the smoke. How disappointing. The first time in my life that my eyeliner was totally on point and no one would even be able to tell. I looked on as the firemen dismounted from their trucks. An ambulance and some police cars pulled up close behind and the crowd seemed to disappear. I watched as they rushed over with their ladders and when they began the ascent, I sat down on the bed. A few seconds later a firefighter appeared in the window. I quickly discarded the scarf.
"You okay?" he asked.
"You wanna come out of there?"
I was confused. This was not the way it happened in the movies.
"Aren't you going to come and get me?" I inquired.
"You can walk can't you?"
"Well, yeah, but you're supposed to put me over your shoulder and carry me down the ladder!"
"If you were unconscious on the floor with one or more broken limbs, I would certainly consider hauling you to safety but as it is, you look more than capable of climbing out by yourself so are you coming or not because this building is on fire and I don't really fancy leaning up against it for much longer."
I was momentarily outraged and then I dragged myself begrudgingly out of the window.
"You've got black on your face," he pointed out.
Once safely down the ladder he deposited me in the ambulance and joined his colleagues in fighting the fire. The ambulance lady checked me over and told me that she'd have to take me to the hospital but I sensed that I could refuse and did so. Unwillingly, she let me out and I stared in astonishment at the charred remains of the house. Some of our belongings were laid out on the driveway, blackened to a crisp. One of the firemen approached and asked if I wanted to have a look inside. This didn't seem like standard procedure either but seeing as they were breaking all the rules today I followed on. The first thing I noticed was that the stairs weren't there anymore.
In the days that followed, I told my story again and again. And then I listened to my friends tell my story again and again although their version of events were far more dramatic and usually centered around the eyeliner ("...and while the entire house was burning down around her, she was just stood there doing her make up!"). But in listening to their lively retellings, I realised something. I was able to put on eyeliner whilst the house was burning down around me because I was calm. And because I was calm, I was able to think clearly. When the report came out in the local newspaper a week later, the firemen commended me for the quick-thinking reactions which saved my life. Had I been panicking, I may not have thought to shut the door behind me and stuff the bedclothes in the gaps. Had I been panicking, I may have tried to escape out of the window or worse, down the stairs.
A few years later I came across a quote by Sun Tzu which expressed exactly what I had learnt from surviving the fire: "Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought." My state of mind was not solely responsible for saving my life that day, without Harry and Mary and the fire department I would surely not be here to tell the tale, but it was definitely a contributing factor. And I don't believe that the power of the mind only comes into play in times of emergency. Every day we fight little battles inside our heads, when we're trying to pick the salad over the chips, when we're trying to convince our legs that they can manage an extra mile or when we're trying to quit our jobs and open a business.
These days when I find myself in a difficult situation, I act as quickly as possible to gain control of my mind. It rarely involves practising my eyeliner technique, despite the fact that my skills have barely improved in just over a decade. Sometimes I run, sometimes I meditate, sometimes I write. Sometimes it comes easily, other times it takes much longer. But I always persevere because until I'm calm I'm no more useful than a bystander on a bicycle who's yelling that the world is about to end.