Someone sent me a horrific news item the other day. It was the transcript of a 911 call from an assisted living facility in California. The patient desperately needed CPR in order to survive until the EMT’s arrived.

“It’s against our policy to have any of our untrained residents perform CPR,” the nurse told the dispatcher (it’s unclear why the nurse couldn’t do it herself). “Flag down a stranger,” suggests the frustrated dispatcher, offering to walk them through the steps. “The patient is going to die.”

The nurse checked with her supervisor who was adamant. It was against their policy.

You can almost hear the dispatcher banging her head against the wall and tearing her hair out. “Get me someone, anyone!” she begged (I’m paraphrasing but the emotional sense is accurate). They didn’t and, as predicted, the patient passed away.

This is, of course, “policy”, “rules” and “regulations” taken to their absurd extreme. But it’s something we confront every day – usually, thank God, with less dire but perhaps no less frustrating consequences.

Dennis Prager told a story on his radio show of a young woman trying to withdraw money from her bank account. This particular branch required a scan of the right index finger as identification. Unfortunately this customer was missing that digit. The teller refused her request to use an alternative form of identification and denied her withdrawal. “It’s branch policy,” asserted the bank employee. (I get tense just writing about this absurd scenario.)

These are tales of bureaucracy gone awry. While there is certainly a role for rules and regulations, a little flexibility is necessary. We need to be on guard lest we get so caught up in the policies that we forget the human element.

I remember one vacation when we drove to the beach to go bike riding. The parking cost was significant but it was going to be an afternoon’s entertainment. We paid upon entry but as drove by the bike rental shop, we saw that it was closed. We immediately returned to the ticket booth, explaining that we were leaving due to the unavailability of bikes and politely requested a refund. It was a no go. “But we were here less than two minutes,” we explained. We went around and around in circles – to no avail. Finally we left. It wasn’t even the financial loss that bothered me (well maybe it was!). It was the rigidity, the inflexibility, the illogic, and the lack of humanity.

I always try to clarify my position – “I was just dropping someone off.” “I got lost.” “It was the other party’s mistake; why is the bank charging me?” – and almost always to deaf ears, to people immune to reason, to those who are so hemmed in by the rules they can’t see their own irrationality. I feel like I’m trapped in a scene from Kafka.

What makes people stop thinking? Why do they lose perspective? How can they fail to see the human being in front of them? Where is their empathy, their sense of common humanity? What if it was their mother in the facility for seniors? What if it was their bank account?

My daughter once had a job that required access to the last four digits of their clients’ social security numbers. “I can’t give that to you,” one zealous phone rep said, “we’re only allowed to give out the whole number!”

I think that rigid bureaucracy is a reflection of a breakdown of society; it’s substituting rules for community, for caring, for trust – and often for intelligent thought.

And only through truly caring about each individual, through sincerely trying to put ourselves in their shoes, through a real effort at treating them the way we like to be treated can we break its stranglehold and return to humanity and good sense.