Quite some time ago, someone was talking to me about one of her children and said something oblique that led me to understand her daughter had been molested. It wasn’t my place to inquire and I don’t know the specifics but my impression was it was an early level by someone who was grooming her. I wasn’t sure from the way the mother was speaking if she realized the significance of what she was saying. In a later conversation I came to feel that although the mother knew what had happened, she wasn’t understanding how central this was to the issues her daughter was having. As a result, she wasn’t taking steps to protect her daughter from a situation that was developing because of the lack of this awareness.
This put me in an uncomfortable situation because it’s not fun to bring to someone’s awareness something so sensitive, especially when your opinion isn’t being directly asked for – she was asking for my feedback on something that she didn’t think was related. I knew she valued my opinion but still…to call it a touchy topic is a big understatement. But when there’s a child at risk, you can’t just stand by the side and say, ‘tsk, tsk’ later on when something happens. I told her it seems there is a potential perpetrator in her daughter’s life and that her daughter was at a very high risk of being sexually abused unless steps are taken to protect her. Thankfully she was receptive.
I’m bringing this up because I was thinking about why so often good people see something wrong and stand by and do nothing – including me. We don’t like being uncomfortable so usually we ignore things we see rather than take action, or blame the victim because they made us uncomfortable and it’s easier to blame them than to exert ourselves to actually do something to help.
I was concerned about a different situation and for months thought about how to approach the mother without making her defensive. I told myself that she probably wouldn’t listen to me, that she didn’t have the resources to change the situation, that she was well-intended, that I was imagining things, that the situation wasn’t really as bad as I thought, there were other people closer to them who would say something, the school would get involved. Basically, I made excuses to avoid doing anything that would make me and her parents uncomfortable.
Even though I told myself this, I knew I was making excuses and making the parents’ emotions more important than the child’s. I was afraid this would be unpleasant for the mother to hear and I didn’t want to be the messenger. I saw a child who was being impacted by a situation and I wasn’t doing anything to help because I was more worried about what her mother would think of me than about what her child needed, and this lack of personal integrity weighed on me so heavily it was like a physical weight.
I tried to think of ways to help from outside the situation but everything required me to speak to the mother and come up with solutions together with her. Finally I asked the mother if we could meet. I really don’t think conversations like this should be had in any way except in person, it’s just too delicate. She couldn’t. I asked if we could speak by phone. She wanted to know about what. In an email I very briefly shared my concerns. She emailed back and said the situation is being taken care of and to never mention this to her again.
Sometimes you can help and sometimes you can’t. But I don’t want to let an unpleasant response keep me from having the courage to step up the next time I have the ability to help. Usually being brave requires facing things that we don’t want to face. Sometimes being brave is being willing to hear hard things. As unpleasant as facing our fears is, it’s still much easier than living with the results of not listening to our conscience.