Stories—spoken, written, acted, sung, or graphically rendered—are potent aesthetic constructions. I was reminded just how potent when my friend Marta, an industrial and moving-media designer, inadvertently reset my moral compass. This is what happened:
On a cold, foggy San Francisco summer morning I phoned Marta. Marta lives on the sunny side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.
“It’s warm here,” she said. “Why not come over for lunch?”
After showing me around her mid-century Modern tract house, we sat at a picnic table in her backyard. She then proceeded to tell me about her recent New York trip.
While staying at a friend’s midtown apartment, she saw smoke coming from the building across the street. She looked closer and saw a man in pajamas standing on the building’s tenth-floor ledge yelling, “My apartment’s on fire!”
Sirens soon filled the air. Firefighters scurried into action on the ground.
A bullhorn-amplified voice from the street urged the man to get back inside.
“It’s too hot!” he screamed.
“Help is on the way!” the voice from the street promised.
Feeling utterly helpless, Marta watched. Flames engulfed the entire apartment. The firemen were close, but not close enough. The man jumped. . . .
After a somber lunch I drove back to the city and tried to work for the rest of the afternoon.
Later that evening I received a call from an old college friend. We hadn’t spoken in at least 15 years. She sounded depressed. She said she had lost her job. I inquired about her daughter. She said they were estranged. Her ex-husband was partially to blame. Also, he stopped paying the court-ordered alimony he owed. Consequently she was two months arrears in her rent. An eviction notice was forthcoming.
I suggested strategies to get the money from her ex. She said she tried them all. Useless. She was desperate. “I’ve been contemplating suicide. . . .”
Just then I remembered the fire story and ran the moral calculus. If tragedy unfolds in front of you and you’re powerless to do anything to avert it, that’s sad. But if tragedy unfolds in front of you and you’re in a position to help but don’t, that’s horrible.
I asked my friend how much rent she owed. I told her it would be my great pleasure to send a check—a no-strings-attached gift—to cover it.
After an intense silence, there was calm. Profuse thanks followed.
For the next few days I felt like an exemplary human being.