“If not now, when; if not us, who?” This simple couplet can exhort people to action.

The admonishment jumped on top of me the other day, “If not now, when? If not us, who.” It was not as if it came in a bolt of lightning telling me to get on a plane and travel to a remote village and administer to the sick children of the world. Instead it was far more mundane. When will a sack of garbage be thrown out? Who was going to do it? The trigger for these questions was a bag of trash outside the backdoor that needed to be carried the extra few feet to the bin on the curb.

Most (people) don’t contemplate the metaphysical significance of a bunch of rubbish. They would just pick it up and toss it into the dumpster without a second thought. Congratulations to you all. Not being so blessed, the saying made me think of the times I have stepped over the trivial or walked around something important that needed to be done. I was waiting for another time and someone else.

It is easy when one is in a pack to be pushed along by the surge dictated by the mindless whole. Therefore the masses determine the timing of action or no action at all. To do something now is a struggle against the suction of the gravity of the group. Further, in mobs, no one is responsible for their own actions. “If not now, when? If not us, who?” can create an exit for us to escape the herd. However we have to walk through it.

As men, husbands, sons we would do well to alter the saying to “If not now, when? If not I, who?” If we answer the question of who with “my wife, my parents, my co-workers or anyone but me,” we need to make some major rearrangement of priorities. These questioning eight words can prompt improved domestic tranquility. Who is going to sooth the crying baby? “I am.” Who will do the laundry or make the bed? “I will.” “Who will help another?” “I can. I am doing it right now.”

One imagines the Good Samaritan having the thought in his head when he stopped to succor the traveler to Jericho. The wounds needed to be dressed now. The thirst needed to be quenched now. Looking around and seeing the priest and Levite had already left him alone it was up to him to comfort, carry the wounded and cover the cost of the care.

History is replete with many similar stories when in a time of need singular people stepped forward and at the critical moment did something ordinary and heroic. In this season of conflict there are many who respond with resolve.

It is when we ask the much less demanding question of who will take out the trash that we decide innumerable, small acts of kindness. If this is not the time to be helpful to our neighbors, when will be a better time? If we are not the ones who are mindful of others, who will be?

Instead of a war cry, these questions could be a call for peace. If we all ask these two questions in a positive way there should not be anyone who is alone in our town, the litter will disappear, there will be no child untutored, the food shelves will be filled and the dirty clothes will be off the floor. There will never be a better time or a better person to start.

Trite, clever cheers or simple sayings can hold great truths. Take them out of the lockerroom to a playing field of much greater significance: Our lives!

So the next time when you see some trash ask the questions: “if not now, when? If not us, who?”

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].