Last Tuesday, a strange encounter. As I was walking through a retail park in a city near where I live a car pulled up beside me. I just assumed the driver wanted directions. He said, “Can you help please? I from Sorrento. I fly into Manchester this morning. I hire this car.” (He actually showed me the documentation of the hire contract.) “I drive up to visit my surgeon, Mr MacDonald. He replace my hip. I have for him this gift.” He gestured to a substantial package on the back seat of the car. “But I discover Mr MacDonald has retired to Portugal. I see you are of his height and build. Will you please accept this gift?”
“Whoa!” I held up my hand. “You don’t need to do that! But I wish you well.”
Without demur, he said, “Okay”, and drove on, for all I know, to search for somebody else of similar height and build.
What was that?
The following day, I was at the check-out in Sainsbury’s. The young lady ahead of me, very attractive, if I may say so, despite, or perhaps because of, the mask (and may I indeed any longer say so? – I have no idea), was conducting a very substantial shop. At the end of the transaction she turned to me and said, “Do you want my Nectar points?”
“Put them on your card if you like. I don’t have a card. Never bother with that stuff.”
“Whoa!” I held up my hand. “You don’t need to do that!”
“It’s a £200 shop.”
“So why not get a Nectar card?” We chatted amiably, and after she had gone I said to the check-out girl (the French say “la beepeuse”) “That’s the best offer I’ve had all day.”
“You should have taken it.”
It’s funny. When I was teaching medical students and junior doctors in New Zealand, I always advised them to take advantage of the opportunity to be a Good Samaritan. I have lost count of the number of times, as a passenger on an airline, I heard the announcement over the public address system, “Is there a doctor on board?” I always owned up. The opportunities were immense. I don’t mean that if you helped out, they would give you a take-your-pick option out of Duty Free, and bump you up to First Class, or even, pre 9/11, up to the cockpit (though all of that was invariably true), but it was chiefly the chance to enter somebody’s life in a very unusual, indeed a unique way, and also for a time to experience something of the fellowship of the aircrew and cabin crew. Magical. Of course there was an element of risk. If you volunteered, you were taking on a duty of care. If it all went pear-shaped, well, you did your best, but you still might have a case to answer. Still, in the final SWOT analysis, if you ask me, the opportunities outweighed the threats. And as the beautiful Keet from Leyden once said to me, “What is life without chances?” I can only think of one occasion when I didn’t immediately respond to the call. I was at Auckland International Airport, seeing off a friend very dear to me. We had ten minutes. Of course the call would come just then. Is there a doctor in the house? I said, “For once, somebody else can go.” So we had our ten minutes and then she passed through into International Departures. But the call came again, and this time I responded. Thus I too was conducted through International Departures to the very flight my dear friend was boarding, practised the medicine, and had a chance to say goodbye once more.
When we think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, we ask ourselves whether we would be that Samaritan, who helped, or the Priest or the Levite, who passed by on the other side. Why don’t we ask ourselves if we would be the man half-dead in the gutter? Even when you’re down and out, it takes a certain grace to accept help. Why should I feel lofty about delivering aid, and deeply suspicious about an offer of largesse? Somebody hands me a gift and I think, “This is odd! What’s the hidden agenda? What’s the scam?”
I’m not sure. Being a little out of practice, I’m not even sure I would so readily rush to the aid of the patient in distress, fearful I would do more harm than good. I was walking round the Milngavie Reservoir just north of Glasgow today and I saw a very overweight middle-aged man running with his dog up a steep grassy slope, and I thought, “Please don’t collapse!” He didn’t.
But still I think, never turn your back on an opportunity. As that late great octogenarian John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”