One of my favorite places to walk and take photos in Santa Cruz is West Cliff Drive. Not only does it offer beautiful views across the Monterey Bay, but it fronts some of the best (and best-viewed) surfing in this part of California.

Yesterday, as I walked past the lighthouse and on toward the Boardwalk, a young man rushed past me, vaulted a fence, and, while standing at the cliff’s edge, shouted “Someone’s struggling. Help her!”

Below, a young woman was treading water dangerously close to the cliff face. There was no obvious way for her to escape the frigid water. As I learned later, she’d been swept from a rock and was trying to swim toward land, not realizing there was no way out from where she swam.

Three surfers who were close to the cliff looked to see where the man pointed and rapidly paddled over to provide aid. The conditions were good for surfing, but not for swimming—the water surged constantly and the waves were over head-high.

After some struggle, they managed to get her on to one of the surfer’s boards and the group of three-plus-one made their way for the stairs a hundred yards off. I followed above to track their progress and see if there was anything I could do to help.

When they arrived at the stairs, they found it impossible to bring her in. The surge was just too much to manage. They tried multiple times, but were pushed back with each attempt. After a few minutes, one surfer directed them to continue on and use the next set of stairs that were a quarter mile closer to shore.

As they started to move, two surfers peeled off to wait for emergency responders while the remaining surfer made sure she was balanced on his board, and then kicked along behind to guide her and the board toward the next set of stairs. As they moved, he encouraged her to paddle to keep herself warm and assured her, time and again, that she would be fine.

As they steadily moved toward the next exit, I walked on and waited for them to come in, as did two wetsuit-clad surfers who paddled ahead to help her out of the water.

Ten minutes later the shivering woman was on the stairs. I gave her my coat and a surfer hugged her to help keep her warm. The surfer who brought her in remained in the water, catching his breath. As the rescue crew arrived, I moved out of the way.

After speaking with her, the crew determined that she was cold and traumatized, but in no danger. The surfer who’d kept her warm walked with her up the steps, steadied by his arm, and guided her back along West Cliff.

I sat nearby and eventually the surfer who paddled her in came up the stairs. We made eye contact and he gave me the protruding-thumb-and-baby-finger-wiggly-hand thing that surfers do to indicate everything’s cool.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Of course, bro. When someone’s in trouble, you help.”

Of course you do.

*     *     *     *

As I walked back toward the lighthouse and then to my car, it occurred to me that these moments had shown me exactly what’s so right and so wrong about people.

As individuals we’re brave. We’re generous. We’re kind.

With the first shout of “She’s struggling! Help her!” everyone within earshot became engaged. A perfect stranger was in trouble and everyone wanted to help for no reason other than their shared sense of humanity. That's just what you do.

And yet, as a society, too many of us have become cowardly. Stingy. Hateful.

There’s a toxic mindset that’s become popular in the last several years. Not only is it now perfectly okay for us to ignore those in need of help, but increasingly—whether to assuage our guilt or simply because we’ve lost all sense of decency—we’ve convinced ourselves that those who need our greatest sympathy deserve the least of it. And leading this shameful chorus are many of this country’s leaders. 

Imagine if we had this attitude as individuals. When the woman was spotted in the water, should the surfers stay away in case she takes them down with her? Should we blame her for being too close to the water’s edge and let her drown? Should we push her under to teach others like her a lesson, while someone on shore shouts “Snowflake!” at those who express concern?

Of course not, bro. When someone’s in trouble, you help.

Unless you don’t. And you don’t because it’s easy to be afraid. It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to let others set a poor example and follow that example because expressing rage and blaming others feels So. Damned. Good.

But it’s poison. 

And it’s only in our individual, generous nature that we’ll find the antidote.