In 1970, researchers at Princeton University conducted a famous “Good Samaritan experiment.” (From Jerusalem to Jericho: a study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behaviour.)
The researchers recruited seminary students, who completed a personality questionnaire in one building, and walked to another building to present a short talk. Half the seminarians were asked to speak about seminary life, while the other half were asked to speak about the Good Samaritan.
One third of the seminarians were told they were running late, and they should hurry to the next building. One third were told they were on schedule. And one third were told they were ahead of schedule, but “you might as well head on over. If you have to wait over there, it shouldn’t be long.”
On the way, each student encountered a man slumped in an alleyway. He might have been drunk, or he might have been injured. In fact, he was an actor, who moaned and coughed twice as they passed by. The researchers wanted to know how many of the seminarians would stop to help the man.
The results were a little surprising. It made no difference at all, whether the seminarians were thinking about themselves, or about the Good Samaritan. But the students’ sense of urgency made a big difference. In the low hurry situation, 63% stopped and helped the victim. In the medium hurry situation, 45% helped. In the high hurry situation, only 10% of the students helped. Some of them literally stepped over the victim on the way to the next building!
The most important factor in “Good Samaritan behaviour” was not the person’s personality, or what was on their mind, but whether the person was in a hurry. “Ethics,” the researchers concluded, “may become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”
The Slow Movement recognises the damage wrought by the breakneck pace of modern living — not only to physical and psychological wellbeing, but also to family life and other relationships. In light of the Princeton research, perhaps the moral life and the spiritual life should be added to the list of casualties.
According to the Gospels, Jesus frequently sought silence and solitude. I think we need to do something similar. We need to slow down!
It’s good to make an annual retreat. That’s not always possible, but if it is possible, an annual retreat — even if it’s only a weekend — is invaluable.
You could resolve to go on a bush walk once a month. (That’s the “country priest” in me talking!)
Or you could impose an “electronic silence” — no Internet, no TV, no phone — on weeknights. That’s a resolution I’m working on at the moment. No electronics, from 8pm to 8am. It’s harder than I expected, but it does seem to cultivate a contemplative spirit.
I think now more than ever, that’s what Christians are called to. We must be contemplatives in the world.