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Samaritan Syndrome

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"Look, when you can do the things that I can... but you don't... and then the bad things happen... they happen because of you."

How unfair is it that those people won the Superpower Lottery? All of that power and not a care in the world! They can get rich off those abilities or play "Superman"! That is, except...every time they take a coffee break, it means a Bus Full of Innocents somewhere fell off a cliff. When they took that Intrepid Reporter out on a date, a Giant Space Flea from Nowhere leveled Manhattan. And while they renegotiate their rent, Atlanteans invade Madagascar. And you can forget about sleeping.

You guessed it: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. Whereas Muggles can "pass the buck" in terms of the responsibility for recycling, civic duty, or taking the government to task, Superheroes can't. Being the only ones capable of dealing with supervillains and natural disasters means that the price of their inaction is the burden of a death they could have prevented on their conscience. Or not. The more responsibility they feel, the more Guilt Complex they suffer for "failing" to be responsible.

When it is addressed, it's why superheroes, especially the idealistic types, tend to be workaholics who feel great guilt over any and every death that happens on their watch. You see, the problem with having the power of a god is you also get the responsibility of one...which is a burden no sane human is built to take. Being (mostly) human, heroes will have to balance the responsibilities implicit in having their abilities with basic needs like food, sleep, friendship, fun, romance, and perhaps even un-heroic hobbies and work.

Needless to say, this can go to either extreme. Some go overboard as they attribute any and every un-prevented accident to themselves, running themselves ragged, whereas others deny all responsibility in favor of living a normal life.

The former type tends to shun their civilian identity, friends, and loved ones, often becoming exhausted, unbalanced, and much more at risk of snapping and going into a Heroic BSoD over a real or perceived failure. Some Super Heroes may even become a Martyr Without a Cause out of a subconscious desire to die just to get a chance to rest. This is especially true when the setting has Ungrateful Bastards who see fit to blame the hero for things they can't control. The latter will usually be somewhat like a Zen Survivor, while they might not go into supervillainy and actively cause death and destruction, one has to wonder at the good they could have done, and how many deaths they could have prevented...if they hadn't been, oh, mowing their lawn.

This can turn into a self-perpetuating cycle if the Hero Harasses Helpers that might take some of the load off.

The "happy mean" between the two is one where they use their abilities as much and as effectively as they can while taking time for themselves. The balancing itself is itself a great source of drama for a "kitchen sink"-style of superhero story. Samaritan Syndrome also lends itself well as a Drama-Preserving Handicap, preventing heroes from dangerously cutting loose.

Because of this trope, one key question about any superhero-containing universe is whether there is a surplus or deficit of superpowered awesomeness relative to crime and other dangers. If there is a surplus, heroes can kick back with no guilty pangs. If not, this trope may come into play in one form or another. If the hero isn't able to take time off, this can easily lead to Heroic Fatigue. To help with that and with this trope, many series will have other similarly powerful characters or True Companions take up some of the load, say "we got this one" to give the hero some rest/free time and remind them You Are Not Alone. The hero may also get a Self-Care Epiphany.

A sort of variation of this trope is when someone feels guilty because they didn't do enough.

Prone to Think Nothing of It — they think the heroics are part of the job, not something requiring special gratitude. See also Chronic Hero Syndrome (where the hero is constantly compelled to help everyone who needs it, regardless of circumstances) and Restricted Rescue Operation (where outside forces put limits on what you can do). If the guilt comes from failing to save a relative or loved one, then it's I Let Gwen Stacy Die.

Named in part for the parable of the Good Samaritan, and in part for The Samaritan.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Nanoha has aspects of this. Early on, her negligence enabled a disaster that she probably could have prevented. Unlike most people in her situation, she doesn't angst about it- she just resolves never to let it happen again. Nanoha does have a tendency to overwork herself, although she toned it down somewhat after it almost got her killed.
  • Discussed in My Hero Academia, where All Might talks to his protégé, Midoriya Izuku, about saving people, and that there are some even he can't save, though he always does his best to save as many as possible.
  • Dios, the prince in Revolutionary Girl Utena, had this so badly that he collapsed due to exhaustion.
  • Sailor Moon shows this in spades, particularly during the first half of Sailor Moon R: deep inside, Usagi's tired of being Sailor Moon, especially after the events of last season and it starts futzing with her powers to the point where her Moon Tiara Action attack powers down in mid toss and her original brooch is destroyed. The second half had Ami preparing to leave for Germany to study medicine abroad, but when her friends don't show up to say goodbye, she realizes she CAN'T leave and runs back to save the day.
  • Early in To Your Eternity, Fushi blames himself for the deaths of his friends because of his weakness despite his immortality. As a result, he isolated himself on an island for 40 years so that he won't have to fail protecting others. Of course, that idea didn't work because the Nokkers continued to attack people anyway.

    Comic Books 
  • Alluded to in B-list books like Animal Man, where it's often mentioned that someone more famous like Superman can't show up to upstage the hero because of an Eldritch Abomination or some such.
  • Astro City:
    • The Superman Substitute, Samaritan, is the Trope Codifier/Trope Namer. He has such a horrible case of this trope that he hasn't been able to form a single normal human relationship in twenty years.
    • In one story his fellow superheroes make arrangements to protect the world without him for one night so that he can go on a date with Winged Victory, a Wonder Woman Captain Ersatz, who is similarly as dedicated to heroism. Both of them have a hard time relaxing on the date, but it's implied that their being out of action for a little while didn't cost the world anything due to their friends stepping up their game. There's also one moment towards the very end of the issue where they get to relax and enjoy a very short moment of dead silence, with no emergencies.
      • Later issues heavily imply the two of them are an item, which is appropriate considering their similarities to their duty.
      • It's really brought home by the fact that Samaritan's dream is to be able to fly free — as in, "just fly around for the fun of it" rather than "fly toward the latest emergency".
    • Discussed in "After the Fire", where a teen named Farrell talks to a firefighter who lost his leg rescuing him from a burning high rise.
      Artie: "The superheroes flyin' around, they're okay — but they can't always be there. We gotta take care of ourselves."
  • One of the few skills Batman hasn't mastered is the ability to delegate his crime-fighting. No matter how horrific Gotham's threats become or how many powerhouses he has on speed dial, Bruce simply refuses to allow anyone else to shoulder his burdens. It's gotten so bad that many theorize that Batman really is crazy in his own way.
    • The one time he did delegate, after his back had been broken, the stand-in ended up with a huge case of this trope, essentially going crazy trying to build a better suit to fight with and ultimately fighting Batman himself, claiming to be the true Batman.
    • Considering that he was driven into this business after watching his parents get murdered it makes sense that he is an example of this trope. If he called someone else, he wouldn't get to punish the bad guy himself. On the other hand, Bruce has trained a lot of skilled heroes who are, for the most part, more mentally well-adjusted than him — and, to some extent, his career as the Batman has made this trope necessary, as Bruce's presumed-death-actually-timeshifted absence culminated in Gotham pretty much going to hell because Gotham needs a Batman to strike fear into the cowardly and superstitious criminals.
    • This has actually been somewhat addressed in the new Batman Inc. series, where Batman has been recruiting like-minded and able heroes all over the world to serve as the Batman of that area. This means that, essentially, most regions of the world are being taken care of by their own Batman.
  • Captain Marvel: Genis-Vell had a form of omniscience and omnipotence that unfortunately could only be in one place doing one thing and drove himself crazy trying to pick which help to give and then seeing how wrong his choices were.
    • Notably, he went from heroic to into a Heroic BSoD induced coma after about a day of dealing with this. Then he woke up with a bad case of A God Am I. The universe didn't last long after that. It was heavily implied that an Eldritch Abomination had amped his powers up deliberately to provoke his insanity. Genis's father and sister had the same awareness and never demonstrated the insanity.
  • In one of the City of Heroes comic books, the local Superman Captain Ersatz Statesman is seen to have this problem deep down- although he's had over 100 years to reach a good balance, his inner fear is revealed to be that he doesn't have the time to help everyone. Manticore is also revealed to have a similar problem, though more related to his own doubts about Crimefighting with Cash.
  • In the first issue of Dell Comics' Dracula (which is about a descendant of the original Dracula who suddenly gets vampire-like powers), upon discovering he has powers Dracula baldly states "Now I'll go to the United States and become a superhero."
  • Played for laughs in issue #0 of Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink. A therapy session with Superman Expy Captain Omnipotent ends with the realization that the Captain is a perfectionist overachiever because of his Survivor Guilt, striving for the approval of his dead parents. A jubilant Captain Omnipotent frees himself from his heroic obsession... causing him to ignore a half-dozen crimes and disasters occurring around him.
  • This is a serious problem for Empowered, made worse by the unreliability of her powers.
    • At one point, her boyfriend had to put her super-suit down the garbage disposal (it regenerates, so that's not as bad as it sounds) to prevent her from going after a supervillain when she was too sick to fight.
    • To make matters worse, almost all of her great accomplishments revolve around What You Are in the Dark — it's not like she's going to get any credit for her self-sacrificing nature, as about 99% of the world just thinks of her as that superheroine who gets kidnapped a lot/who might be a supervillain in disguise.
  • The Flash:
    • Early in the career of Wally West, the third Flash, he's having problems with his powers due to this syndrome and visits a shrink. The shrink asks him to count how many people's lives he's personally saved, leaving out foiled alien invasions and such. Wally comes up with a number around 112. The shrink says, "I once stopped a guy from taking a bottle of pills to kill himself. That thought still keeps me warm at night. Those 112 people forgive you for not being perfect. You need to forgive yourself."
    • Somewhat later, Wally doesn't check every room in a burning building, and a woman is crippled as a result. After the ensuing lawsuit, she asks him, "What about the next time? What'll you do when you're not fast enough?" He replies, "We'll never know," and proceeds to learn everything he can about the speed force, overcoming his psychological limits, and truly becoming the Fastest Man Alive.
  • In Irredeemable this is implied to have been a contributing factor to The Plutonian becoming Ax-Crazy. The one time he went to the moon for a few minutes peace, a flesh-eating virus carried by screams killed several thousand children. While that was not the straw that broke the camel's back, it does lead to his downfall soon afterwards, partially because The Plutonian was the one who indirectly led to the virus' release in the first place.
  • Driven to its brutal conclusion in Powers with the Superman Captain Ersatz who finds himself run ragged mentally and emotionally by the task of living to save the world every second of every day. He's been around for decades and, despite his best efforts and those of all the other superheroes in the world, he keeps seeing the same problems playing out... so he starts getting contemptuous and develops a God complex. And then he accidentally kills a friend, snaps, and destroys the Vatican, large chunks of the Middle East, and anything else he's come to see as inherently corrupt and contributing to The Problem instead of The Solution before he's stopped.
  • In Marvel Comics, The Sentry (another Superman Captain Ersatz) gets so upset about being unable to save everyone that he offloaded the responsibility of deciding who gets his attention into a purpose-built robot.
  • Spider-Man: Ironically, Spider-Man is usually good at avoiding this, since he knows that there are only so many hours in the day and that he can't always be there. Besides, there are plenty of other superheroes hanging around New York, so chances are that if he's not there, one of them is. However, when he knows that something might go down that he was even remotely connected with, he can't pass the buck, not even to another superhero who might be more capable. After all, he blames his uncle's death on his refusal to stop a crook. He got a full-blown case when he briefly got cosmic powers, however.
    • There's a prose short story where he's about to get out of bed and begin a day of crime-fighting and people saving. His wife convinces him to stay in bed for just five more minutes of snuggling. Later, it turns out that during those five minutes, someone committed suicide, in a manner he easily could have stopped. Heroic BSoD ensues.
    • In Spider-Man: Reign, old man Peter is struggling with having spent his entire life living this way. He's too old now to do any real crime-fighting and feels terribly guilty, but he also hates himself for how following the trope kept him away from his beloved MJ as she lay dying of cancer. Her last words to him, as he climbed out her hospital window to deal with an emergency, was simply a tired "go..." and that's torn him up for years and years. At his lowest moment, however, her ghost pops in to scold him for being so angsty all this time and reveal that she was always proud of him for sacrificing his own happiness for others. She was trying to use her last breath to say "go get 'em, tiger!"
  • Supergirl:
    • In the Bronze Age, Kara was torn between her desire to live a normal life, her responsibilities bestowed upon her by her formidable powers, and her need to save and help as many people as possible.
    • During the second half of her Superman Family run she worked as a soap opera actress. Her job was extraordinarily demanding and interfered with both her private life and her Supergirl duties. Most of the time, she had to ignore emergencies and working as Supergirl at night instead of sleeping. And she had no time to be plain Linda Danvers. It was driving her crazy, so she eventually quit her job.
    • In the late Bronze Age she had to accept the fact that she couldn't save everyone and sometimes she wasn't needed. In a classic story from that era she was mindwiped and forgot about her Secret Identity. She got her memories back, but that incident made her realize she couldn't be Supergirl 24/7.
    • Post-Crisis Supergirl spends all of her time in her cape until Superman warned her that she would get burned out if she kept it up and she needed to live like a normal person.
  • Superman:
    • In his director's commentary for Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis refers to what he calls the "Superman problem," e.g. the notion that Supes can and should be busy 24/7 doing heroic stuff, so why is he wasting time with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen?
    • The classic Bronze Age story "Who Took The Super Out Of Superman?" involves him being forced to choose only one of his identities to maintain. He soon realizes that both are equally important to him, because he can't stand the guilt of ignoring his calling if he stays as Clark for too long, but even Superman can't stand being Superman 24 hours a day. This theme crops up repeatedly in Bronze Age Superman stories and several Supergirl stories, but "Who Took..." is the most well-known example.
    • The Big Blue offered one of the better deconstructions of this trope. An elderly woman living in Suicide Slumsnote  gets the idea that she is able to call down Superman on bad guys after praying twice for divine intervention. She eventually goes looking for trouble so that Superman will come in and stop it. Then she tries it when unknown to her Superman was away preventing an Eldritch Abomination from devouring Earth and goes into a gang's hang out hoping that they will be broken up. She is shot and the people of Metropolis realize that they can solve their problems without Superman. The woman bears no ill will towards him, nor do the people of Metropolis, and the story concludes that Superman is a nice thing to have around, but doesn't need to be there all the time.
    • One storyline had Superman early in his Post-Crisis career realizing that even with all his speed he can't be everywhere and save everyone even in one city, and having to learn to tune out 99% of the cries for help his super-hearing picks up every minute of every day.
    • Despite all this, Superman was hit with this twice in the mid to late 90s. First was when he was resurrected after The Death of Superman: he and Lois go to Europe for a nice dinner out. While he was gone, the Toyman kidnaps a bunch of children, including the son of a former co-worker of theirs, and kills them. He's so guilt-ridden by this, he vows never to take another vacation.
    • The second time had Superman mind-controlled by a powerful supervillain, ditching his Clark Kent identity to be Superman 24/7 and watch over the entire world. How bad did it get? He shows up in nearly every DC Comic during one particular month, twice being tossed out of Gotham by Batman, creating an entire army of Superman Robots and finally having the JLA on his ass.
    • Superman actually discussed this trope, and why you shouldn't go overboard with it with Kyle when Kyle first got the Ion power.
    • Once the protagonist of New Super-Man learns how to access super-hearing he immediately hears every cry for help and bad thing in progress in the city, sending him on a rampage as he jumps from one problem to another for hours, before the power fades. This experience leaves him wracked with guilt over all he couldn't save and afraid to access his powers again. It takes some pep talk from Superman himself to snap him out of it.
  • Every hero in Watchmen shows what happens when so-called superheroes exist.
    • Rorschach is what happens when this trope is taken off the far end. Walter Kovacs has no real friends, families, job, or anything of substance in his life as a civilian. His whole purpose of being is so Rorschach can gather information and continue to be a justice enforcing masked-hero, even though it eats away at his humanity. Given the book's deconstruction status, this is to be expected, as Rorschach is meant to establish what would happen to people who felt responsible to bring punishment to others at their own expense. Rorschach eventually lost his mind to his delusions, becoming not so different from the violent thugs he beats to death on a regular basis.
    • Ozymandias eventually felt that his heroism was too limited in scale and decided he needed to protect the world, even at the expense of a small part of it, basically taking the First Law of Robotics, protect humans, and evolving it into the Zeroth Law of Robotics, protect humanity.
    • Dr. Manhattan increasingly feels disconnected from humanity by his god-like abilities. Ironically, the power to save everyone has basically removed his incentive to do so as people became like ants to him.
    • The Comedian snapped and became a sociopath in order to reconcile the horrors that he saw and committed.
    • Night-Owl held on to his idealism and punished himself for it later in life.

    Fan Works 
  • In Neither a Bird nor a Plane, it's Deku!, this is what spurs Izuku into action on the day he meets All Might. When he and Katsuki Bakugou were kids, they got into a brawl that ended with Bakugou nearly dying after Izuku accidentally threw him through a concrete wall with his newly-activated Kryptonian Super-Strength. From then on, he decided that the best way to protect others from himself was to live a normal, meaningless life away from heroics. But when the Sludge Villain has Bakugou in his grasp, Izuku can't bear the thought of just watching his best friend die and rushes into the fray to pull him free.
  • Surprisingly enough, this occurs to Doctor Strange in Child of the Storm. He truly wants to save as many people as he can, and originally only wanted to be a doctor, at one point emphasising that the first oath he swore that he really meant was the Hippocratic Oath. However, due to his circumstances, he has to look to the big picture and often sacrifice the one to save the many. This has resulted in a 500,000 year lifetime of relentless self-hatred.
  • In Ultimate Spider-Woman: Change With The Light, Mary Jane Watson suffers from constant stress due to being a Triple Shifter and trying to juggle all her different responsibilities. She's also extremely hard on herself, constantly berating herself for not always being able to keep up with everything and feeling frustrated at constantly missing out on great acting or modeling opportunities due to having to Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World. When Mary Jane actually tries to take a break at her doctor's insistence, her being Born Unlucky means she constantly has to suit up even when she doesn't want to. It doesn't help that New York has far fewer superheroes than the canon Marvel Universe (Word of God says that most of them, like the Avengers, are based in other cities). New York has far more supervilains than it does superheroes, meaning that every superhero that lives long enough is going to accumulate a massive Rogues Gallery.

    Films — Animated 
  • The Incredibles:
    • Mr. Incredible's very first line is "Every superhero has a secret identity; I don't know a single one who doesn't. Who wants the pressure of being Super all the time?" Though he laments his lack of free time at the beginning of the film, once public opinion forces him underground Mr. Incredible finds himself driven to leap back into action.
    • He lampshades this trope moments after the first line:
      Mr. Incredible: No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved, y'know? For a little bit? I... I feel like the maid! "I just cleaned up this mess! Can you keep it clean for...for ten minutes?!"
    • There is a scene later on in which Frozone has to cancel a dinner with his wife that they had gotten reservations for and planned for two months.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • American Sniper: Despite his wife Taya telling him that he's already sacrificed enough for his country and his family needs him, Chris Kyle keeps going back to fight in Iraq because his buddies' lives depend on his unique skills as a sniper. If he isn't there, more of them will die, and despite saving so many lives he blames himself for every death he fails to prevent.
  • DC Extended Universe:
    • In Man of Steel, Clark can't stop helping people, due to his powers. It's bad enough that he had to watch his father die.
    • In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Clark struggles with this even more, since he won't stop helping people, but worries about the consequences of his actions and whether he's doing more harm than good, especially after his intervention in Africa saving Lois Lane from a terrorist warlord leads to a massacre although this is revealed to be a Frame-Up by Lex Luthor. When Lex bombs the Capitol building, killing and injuring hundreds of people, being unable to save them sends Clark into a full-blown Heroic BSoD.
  • In Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the protagonists couldn't even get a few hours off to enjoy their own wedding or even have a wedding at all before some new catastrophe intruded.
  • The Guardian (2006): Ben Randall is shown to be the product of this kind of life as a living legend in the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers. He spent his life always leaving movies and parties to go out and save people stuck at sea. Notable especially for a scene when Jake Fischer asks him "what his number is" to which:
    Randall: 22.
    Fischer: 22? I expected it to be a bit more, haven't you been a swimmer for years?
    Randall: It's the number of people I couldn't save. It's the only number I kept track of.
    • In the end Randall sacrifices himself to save Fischer. It's implied that Fischer finds a balance in his life as he goes back to his girlfriend who he had left to be a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer and tells her that he wants to be in a relationship with her.
  • In Mission: Impossible – Fallout, this trope is given as the reason that Ethan Hunt's marriage to Julia failed. He tried to retire from being a super spy, but anytime he or Julia saw a news item about a terrorist attack they both knew that he might have been able to do something to stop it. Julia gives Ethan her blessing to continue to save the world and assures him that she's happily re-married.
  • In Schindler's List this trope causes a Heroic BSoD for Schindler towards the end as he is preparing to flee from the advancing Red Army after having saved 1100 Jews by employing them in a factory that was the model of non-production.
    Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just...I could have got more. [...] This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person...and I didn't! And I...I didn't!
  • Spider-Man:
    • Poor Peter Parker, in the Spider-Man Trilogy, suffers from this. He suffers on an even larger scale than most heroes, as he's exhausted, dirt poor, and failing college because he has to stay awake all night and take random breaks in the middle of the day to stop the crimes around him, costing him studying and job advancement. When he temporarily quits being Spider-Man after his powers stop working, he becomes much, much happier for a little while, until this trope eventually catches up to him again.
    • Peter Parker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes through this as well, per Spider-Man tradition. When Tony Stark meets Peter in Captain America: Civil War and asks why he became a hero, Peter explains that with his powers, anything bad that he could have prevented would make him feel responsible for it. This also drives the plot of Spider-Man: Far From Home, where the still-teenaged Peter, after experiencing the traumatic events of dealing with Thanos, simply wants a respite from being Spider-Man by going on vacation and purposefully not thinking about this trope. Of course, it's never that easy for Spider-Man, as Peter has to grapple with once again playing a needed hero or hoping someone else will pick up the slack in his place. Finally driven home hard in Spider-Man: No Way Home, when he's forced to save the villains of the other Spider-Man film franchises from their canonical deaths, and it costs him everything. But, from the advice of Aunt May and his alternate selves, he carries on even from that low because...
  • In Superman Returns Superman talks about this with Lois.
    Superman: You said that the world doesn't need a savior. But every day I hear people crying out for one.
  • Superman II. Superman gives up his powers so he can be with Lois Lane and what happens? 3 Kryptonian supervillains who hate his fathers' guts for imprisoning them in The Phantom Zone break out, show up and go on a rampage in his adopted home country to try drawing him out. He just Can't Stay Normal.

  • The Beachwalker is a civilian example. Even after she gets shot, she can’t take a break because she’s the only one in a position to help her patient, and her aging employer has no one else he can depend on.
  • In Dragon Bones, Ward suffers from this. After he saved a slave, was backstabbed by her, and she tortured his brother, he asks Oreg whether he could have done more for her, specifically break her magical bond to her master. Oreg tells him, only if she wanted that very much - which she doesn't. Ward also ponders whether he maybe should have had sex with her, to make things better, even though he doesn't even like casual sex that much, and told her that he'd rather not, when she tried to seduce him. He is also infamous for attracting creatures (animal, human, ghost) who need help - they seem to know he will provide it.
  • Good Omens has the angel Aziraphale, who nearly gives himself and Crowley away when he uses his supernatural powers to fix up Anathema's old bike so it's better than new.
    "Oh Lord, heal this bike," [Crowley] whispered sarcastically.
    "I'm sorry, I just got carried away," hissed Aziraphale.
  • Harry Potter will all too often go out of his way to help others. Hermione even notes this in the fifth book ("Don't you have sort of a saving-people thing?"). Voldemort knows it, too ("The boy has a great weakness for heroics.").
  • Mercedes Lackey's works:
    • Diana Tregarde has a minor, slightly selfish version of the trope in Children of the Night. She's a Guardian, endowed with incredible mystic powers, and she has to help anyone in her area who really needs those powers. If she doesn't, there are other Guardians who will try and stop a developing crisis, but they're a little ways away and one of them is old, one of them has a broken leg, and one has extreme acrophobia. They'll do it, but she doesn't want them to have to, not when her only problem is that the threat in question gives her panic attacks. Briefly after becoming a Guardian she tried to ignore it and live a normal life, but found out that it just meant that monsters would go after her on their terms.
    • In the Heralds of Valdemar series, this is a common feature of the Heralds that tends to go hand in hand with their Incorruptible Pure Pureness. Few have felt it more keenly than Vanyel Ashkevron, of the Last Herald-Mage Trilogy, who had to be practically tied up and forced to take a vacation. It's also justified to an extent in that a great enemy of Valdemar was deliberately picking off the Herald-Mages in order to drive Vanyel into exhaustion and thus make him vulnerable.
  • Odd Thomas goes through this problem when he finds out that, even though a possible thousand were saved from a mall shooting and bombing thanks to the use of his gift, he was still not fast enough in his rescue to save nineteen people, including his girlfriend.
  • In Aaron Allston's Sidhe-Devil, Zeb Watson is upset because a mistake he made may have kept him from reducing the death toll in a terrorist attack even further than he did. Doc Sidhe tells him:
    "That's why I am still in this business, Zeb. The newspapers talk about the good we do. But when I dream, only the ones I failed to save come to visit me. And I think, 'Maybe next time. Maybe then I'll get everyone out. Maybe then I'll take the killer down in time.' I owe it to the ones I've failed."
  • In the Wearing the Cape setting there seems to be enough super-powered heroes to go around; there are even "reservist" superheroes who live normal lives unless called upon for help in cases of extreme disasters. That said, some superhumans like Hope Corrigan feel the need to Use Their Powers For Good deeply enough to force them to put on a costume and fight crime when they would really rather be doing something else.
  • Worm:
    • Panacea has this, as she is among the only healers in the world, she spends all of her free time visiting hospitals and helping people because she couldn't live with herself if she didn't. Unfortunately, the lack of oversight of her visits and her broken home life means that nobody really notices when she begins to suffer Heroic Fatigue...
    • Scion appears to have this, as he spends all of his time flying around the world helping people with dangers big and small. And since he doesn't appear to need to eat or sleep, he's doing this 24/7. Since he never speaks, there's a lot of speculation in-universe as to why exactly he's dedicated to the hero thing so completely. The real reason is that he has no direction in life and just took the first suggestion he heard from a random stranger, "If you're so powerful, why don't you help people!?", because he quite literally had nothing else to do.
    • Deconstructed with Eidolon, who's generally considered the most powerful superhero on the planet thanks to his Power Copying (he can do what any three other parahumans can do, letting him rig the Superpower Lottery in his favour) and openly admits that he 'lives for' his work. Turns out that his real power is that he's a Reality Warper with a Semantic Superpower that gives him 'anything he needs', meaning his addiction to fixing problems creates problems only he can fix, in the form of the godlike Omnicidal Maniac Endbringers.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5 gives us Vir Cotto, the one decent Centauri except for the previous emperor. After an attempt to promote him to Antarctica, he uses his position on Minbar to fake the death of 2000 Narn refugees and smuggle them to safety from his own government. This is discovered and he is demoted. His explanation makes it clear that he would've rather stayed on Minbar.
    Vir: Back home nobody cares about dead Narns, only living ones. While I was here there was nothing that I could do. But while I was running the diplomatic mission on Minbar I had the chance to do something, and I took it. My only regret is that I couldn't have saved more of them.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • Everything normal Buffy wanted to or had to do seemed to conflict with some new supernatural threat to Sunnydale. In the series finale, Willow made every potential Slayer into a full-fledged Slayer, and the series ended with Buffy realizing that because she's no longer The Chosen One but just one of The Chosen Many she had more freedom to live a normal life.
    • This is why all of Buffy's attempts to keep Xander Harris "fray adjacent" failed. He even lampshaded it once, saying that now that he knew the truth about the things that go bump in the night, there's no way he could just sit on the sidelines.
    • Cordelia got hit with this bad after the events of the first season finale of Angel. She repeatedly refused to give up her visions despite the fact that they were horrifically painful; she eventually lost any trace of a social life due to her drive for helping others.
  • Examined in Criminal Minds: Hotch has a bit of this, but Rossi points out that if one of the BAU quits, there will be someone else to pick up the slack.
    Rossi: It's not about us. It's about the job.
  • Doctor Who:
    • An inversion shows up in the form of a particularly chilling Hannibal Lecture in the First Doctor's final serial "The Tenth Planet":
    Polly: Don't you care?!
    Cyberman: Care? No. Why should I care?
    Polly: Because they're people and they are going to die!
    Cyberman: I do not understand you; there are people dying all over your world, and you do not care about them.
    • The Ghost suffers from this in "The Return of Doctor Mysterio". The Doctor asks him when he takes any time off, and despite his claims that he does, it is obvious that he doesn't. The Doctor, of course, is uniquely qualified to identify the symptoms. By the end of the story, he's hung up the cape and settled down with his girlfriend and adoptive daughter, but resolves to keep it "just in case."
    • The Doctor, as noted above, will constantly push themself to save every single life, and feels guilt whenever they have to sacrifice or fail to save any life. However, it's stated multiple times that the Doctor feels it's necessary since anything less would result in them brushing it off as the cost of doing business. On the plus side, this leads to the Doctor successfully pulling off extraordinary stunts to rescue people even when there's no hope. On the minus, it has led at times to a serious amount of guilt and self-hatred.
  • In House episode "TB or not TB", House confronts a man who is refusing to take tuberculosis medication as a publicity stunt and this trope is discussed. House believes that he has TB and something else, and wants to take the symptoms caused by the TB off of his board.
    Dr. Sebastian Charles: There’s people dying in Africa of a disease that we cured over...
    House: Yeah, I know. I saw the concert. Seriously, let’s say you sleep six hours, that means every night you kill 1,440 people. I guess you gotta get some sleep, but come on, if you’d stayed up another 10 minutes you could have saved 40 lives. Do you send notes to the families in the morning? That’s gonna take at least 10 minutes so that’s another 40 dead, another 40 notes…why don’t you go wrack yourself with guilt in your own room?
  • When Lois gained Superman's powers thanks to red kryptonite in Lois & Clark, she became overwhelmed by all the calls for help and even broke down into tears when she couldn't help with two disasters at the same time. Clark had to tell her that no one can be anywhere at once and it was very hard for her since as a reporter, she is supposed to do everything in her power to help others and get the story.
  • Brought up in a few episodes of My Hero (2000); when George for whatever reason is unable to get away quickly, he agonizes over people he is unable to save.
  • Shorty Rossi, the eponymous Pit Boss, has a serious case of this when it comes to all things involving pit bulls. This attitude is taken to the point of Deconstruction at times, as his single-minded determination to help every dog they come across has put his crew in harms' way and pushed them beyond their limits — at which point he expects them to give even more. His own health concerns don't help much, as he has literally put his back on the line several times.
  • Michael suffered from this in Prison Break. First he sacrificed his life to get sent to prison and save Linc. Then he wanted to save Sara. Then he found out about the Company and the General and wanted to take the General down, despite the fact he had a brain tumour and a ton of enemies.
  • In the Soviet Sherlock Holmes series, Holmes says that any decent man should feel guilt whenever a criminal manages to commit a crime.
  • Smallville:
    • In "Sneeze", after Zod and Brainiac wreaked havoc across the globe, Clark ran himself ragged trying to rebuild everything.
    • Lampshaded as 'The Blur' became more and more well known, there was a period where citizens were upset that he could not save everyone. Every tragedy started being blamed on 'Where was The Blur?' and 'Who gives The Blur the right to decide who lives and who dies?'.
    • "Prophecy" has Lois gain Clark's powers and become overwhelmed by the cries for help. Part of the significant character growth Clark has done by this point is that he admits he can't save everyone and while he does feel guilt over this, he must prioritize who is in the most immediate danger before moving on to the next, comparing his role to a Doctor in triage.
  • Star Trek:
    • In Star Trek: The Original Series, Jim Kirk is like this regarding his crew. He often as a young man seems terribly close to curling up into a little ball of guilt every time someone under him dies, especially if it's a result of his orders.
    • The deaths of 200 people on the starship Farragut, including the ship's captain, because Kirk believed his moment's hesitation in firing phasers allowed the alien monster to attack continued to haunt him years after the event. This is despite the fact that the ship's First Officer noted that then-Lieutenant Kirk "performed with uncommon bravery".
      • In a Star Trek Expanded Universe novel, Kirk tests out one of the first holodecks (which still requires him to wear a full-body suit), which allows him to replay the destruction of the Farragut. This time, he doesn't hesitate and has the ship fire phasers. Nothing changes. The ship still gets destroyed and the crewmembers still die.
    • Generally happens to every captain in every series. Picard had a particularly painful moment when he had the choice between ordering his recent true love on a dangerous mission or forcing her to stay on the Enterprise, even though she was the most qualified for the mission. Eventually, he came to the realization that there was no choice at all and ordered her to go. When she survives, she requests a transfer off the ship, knowing that their feelings were clouding their judgment, and he approves it, again having to make the hard choice. Picard's love life sucks, man.
    • The holographic Doctor on the Voyager has the AI equivalent of a mental breakdown not once but twice over the same issue: a crewmember dying because she and another patient had the exact same chances of survival, and he chose to operate on Harry Kim because of their friendship. The first time, Janeway had his memory of the events wiped. The second time, Seven convinced her to let the events play out at the risk of losing their only doctor. He spends days caught in a loop of ranting self-recrimination, but Janeway decides to sit it out with him. In the end, the Doctor manages to pull through and keep his program from experiencing a "cascade failure", in part because the captain is there with him and he can see the negative effects such a vigil is having on her. He breaks his behavior loop to tend to her exhaustion and realizes his responsibility to the surviving crew matters more than blaming himself for something he can't change in the past.

  • The Ballad Of Barry Allen by Jim's Big Ego has The Flash lamenting that by the time the people he rescues even know what happened, there's someone else who needs him and that because of his super-speed, people around him as basically statues. A normal, idle conversation takes him subjective weeks at least.


    Video Games 
  • Litchi Faye-Ling in BlazBlue. When her good friend Roy pushed himself to turn into a monster called Arakune, she solely blamed herself for it and took responsibility upon herself to restore him to normal. In efforts of trying to save him, she moved to Orient Town, where he currently operates, and often travels to the Kaka village to ward him off from eating the villagers there, continually blaming herself whenever she hears that the monster has devoured and killed someone within Orient Town or the Kaka village. She consults with the village elder upon way to preserve and prolong the lives of the Kaka clan, and like with Arakune, chides herself on not being able to find ways to improve their race, no matter how hard she works or toils in doing so. In an extreme case, Litchi instinctively even sacrifices her life to protect Carl, a little boy she doesn't even know during one of his CT story mode routes.
  • Sapphire lampshaded this in a Champions Online blog post on how to keep yourself from starving when crime won't let you stop for lunch.
  • City of Heroes:
    • Some heroes roleplay the "always be working" mentality... while in the Everyone's Welcome interdimensional nightclub. The commonly accepted belief is that, with thousands of heroes in the city, everyone can take a break on occasion. Villains, on the other hand, need no excuse.
    • Thanks to respawning, it is literally impossible to stop every crime or arrest every villain. High-level heroes routinely pass and ignore dozens of low-level spawns as they move around the city.
  • A recurring element in each route of Fate/stay night is protagonist Shirou's search for a way to cope with being unable to save everyone.
  • Dead Island 2: Jacob, underneath his glib and joking demeanor, is quite upset that there are times when he can't save someone, despite his best efforts to do so. Like his immunity to the zombie infection is going to waste if he can't save every single non-immune survivor. It gets to the point where he prays he finds an empty room whenever it looks like things might've gone downhill for the person he's looking for, just so he can have some hope of saving them.
    Jacob: Oh mum, I want to save everyone... but I can’t.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • The Character Development of Garnet from Final Fantasy IX hinges around this. She wants to be a royal princess and later queen who actually does something for her people, but starts blaming herself every time a tragedy strikes her home country, a neighboring country, or anything in the world goes wrong. Her Heroic Self-Deprecation eventually leads to her going temporarily mute with grief after Alexandria is destroyed, her mother dies, and her entire kingdom is left in ruins. Garnet finally starts snapping out of it when the other heroes tell her that no one is blaming her for the tragedy.
    • Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII addresses very early on that Lightning can't afford to think this way. That doomsday clock is ticking and if Lightning tries to save everyone without stopping to think about what tasks are really the best use of her time, then she'll just end up wasting it.
    • Final Fantasy XIV uses this on the player character. Said player character is just a normal adventurer, but they are quickly roped into problems that are too much for the city states to handle by themselves. The player character is blessed with a power from the planet's goddess that makes them immune to being Brainwashed and Crazy by primals that are summoned by the beastmen. The player character is then known across the country as the hope of the people because they have enough power to stand up to anything, including The Empire. Because of their strengths, the player character simply can't refuse to help people since no one else can do what the player can. By the Heavensward expansion, you can see the player character looking tired and worn down and some of the replies you can give border on Deadpan Snarker and Jerkass territories. Regardless of how they feel, the player character keeps fighting the good fight and protecting the innocents, though certain NPCs at that point actually start asking the player character what they feel and what they want in life.
  • Sissel from Ghost Trick has this in spades. He constantly says that he's only interested in finding the answers to his own identity, but it doesn't really match up with what he does. When he sees a young woman shot to death, he states that he's not the kind of guy who'll leave a woman dead like trash in a junkyard, and revives her. He then goes around saving the lives of a bunch of dead people he comes across whether they're of great use to him or not because, damn it, he might only have until dawn before he disappears forever, but no one's dying on his watch. Subverted in the original timeline, where the young woman died and he... left her dead like trash in a junkyard. This is easily explained as he doesn't THINK he's the type of guy who'd leave a dead woman lying around. As it turns out, his Samaritan Syndrome is merely caused by who he perceived himself to be when he was told.
  • Kingdom Hearts: Actually, Sora is not supposed to act like this and Donald even tried to remind him not to "meddle" a few times, but he eventually gives in, because Sora just doesn't stop. All There in the Manual explains that Sora's benevolence and sense for justice and to some degree naiveté have always been too strong for his own good.
  • By Mass Effect 3, the stress of the Reaper invasion seems to have driven Shepard into a severe case of this, regardless of alignment. Implied PTSD and Survivor's Guilt over those they couldn't save manifest themselves in numerous haunting dream sequences that occur throughout the game, and past a certain point the support of their squad seems to be the only thing holding them together. It's particularly driven home in the ending if you choose Destroy, the only ending where they survive, they still walk towards the exploding conduit.

  • Keychain of Creation:
    • Parodied here.
    • Misho's original Samaritan Syndrome was worsened when he made his Sacrifice to gain mastery of sorcery. Going to the Loom of Fate and seeing the destiny of all mortals which, thanks to his perfect memory, resulted in: "So Misho sacrificed his ignorance."
  • Touched on in Love and Capes. Abby wants to know what being a superhero is like, so the local expy of Doctor Strange helps get her some superpowers. Mark and Darkblade discuss that "it hasn't happened yet", and "it" turns out to be being in a situation where you can't save everyone (she can only save 14 of 15 people falling off a bridge), and Mark tells her that every hero has to come to terms with the fact that no matter how good you are, you can't save all the people who need saving. Abby understands this but knows she would have trouble handling it, and her powers fade.
  • Parodied in Oglaf in the adventures of Sir Coffee, who cannot sleep because there's always someone needing urgent help (page safe, but the rest of the comic is mostly NSFW).
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: Taken to its extreme with Superman in one strip, where scientists figure out more and more efficient ways for him to save lives until he's stuck ceaselessly winding a crank that powers the entire planet's energy needs, and can't stop because of the losses it would incur.
  • Feral from Strong Female Protagonist is a former superhero with a healing factor who decides that the most effective way to use her powers is to constantly donate her organs almost 24/7 for the rest of her life—with no anesthesia, which doesn't work on her.

    Web Original 
  • Sailor Nothing: Basically Himei's job description. Interestingly, while she's used to it, although very tired of it, she knows her friends volunteered to become Sailors and help her fight but were not entirely clear on what it would cost. Specifically, she despairs that they, too, will become like her, numb and nearly dead from the constant pressure. So she decides that, effective immediately, it isn't enough to contain the Yamiko — she's going to wage all-out war against them, in hopes of finally ending the conflict once and for all.

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied in The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Stink". Mr. Small, a hardcore environmentalist who prides himself on never harming another living thing, begins to lose his mind and feel horrible about himself because the water he drinks has microbes in it. Hilarity Ensues as the guilt drives him to try and live in the forest, where every living thing in sight mauls him.
  • Batman: The Animated Series:
    • One episode featured the hero making his annual visit to the site of his parents' murder, which makes him late for a sting operation that he helped set up. He arrives in time to help subdue the crooks but finds that Jim Gordon has been severely wounded. Batman's guilt, which is not helped at all by Detective Harvey Bullock, over not being there in time to save Jim sends him into a Heroic BSoD. Batman is later saved from Heroic BSOD because he stops another attempt on Jim Gordon when he wakes up and finds out Jim has the same doubts.
    • In other episodes, he's refused to let minor inconveniences like a cold, hallucinations and, oh yes, blindness, stop him from bringing down the bad guy because he knows what kind of mayhem is being unleashed while he sits it out.
  • The Codrii Speakers of Castlevania admonish Trevor Belmont for his inaction and willingness to leave the citizens of Targoviste to the horrors of Dracula's night hordes, all because the people bought into the lie that the Belmonts were excommunicated for practicing dark magic. Trevor argues that anybody could have stood up in the Belmonts' defense, yet they did nothing, weakening the family despite being the only ones capable of handling Dracula. The Speaker's elder tells him this shouldn't matter, and makes this point in dialogue to him.
    Elder Speaker: Does one run away when someone tells lies about them? What has the church said about the Belmonts? That you have been corrupted by your dealings with the supernatural. That you mock God. That you are a threat to the common good and that evil follows wherever you go. And what did you do in the face of that?
    Trevor Belmont: I didn't run away.
    Elder: Really. So what are you running to?
    Trevor: Are you calling me a coward?
    Elder: No. I am calling you defeated, Trevor Belmont. You fought your battle and decided you lost. [...] We might well lose. But, if nothing else, we might show someone that while battles are won and lost, their is a larger war at stake.
    Trevor: With Dracula’s armies?”
    Elder: No. A war for the soul of our people. Because if we really are the sort of people that will kill one another at the behest of a madman’s fantasies, then perhaps it is right and proper that things from Hell should rise up and wipe us out.
    • His words inspire Trevor, prompting him to return to his family duty to stand against the darkness for the sake of everyone- regardless of what they think or believe.
    Trevor: I don’t know any of you, but that doesn’t matter does it? My family, the family you excommunicated, has fought and died for generations defending this country. We do this thing for Wallachia and her people. We don't have to know you all. We do it anyway. And it’s not the dying that frightens us. It’s never having stood up and fought for you.
  • Danny Phantom takes after Spider-Man in regards to this trope: "If not me, who's gonna protect this town?"
  • Johnny Test played with this trope when Johnny decided to be a superhero and found that they wouldn't let him take a nap, play video games, or even go to the bathroom.
  • The Powerpuff Girls:
    • The episode "Too Pooped to Puff" featured this. They're so good at repeatedly saving Townsville that the people simply stop doing anything for themselves, rationalizing it with "Eh, the Powerpuff Girls will get to it". Eventually, the entire town becomes a group of incredibly lazy slobs. Even Professor Utonium himself tries to ask them to bring him the remote control...which is lying 2 feet away on the coffee table in front of the couch Utonium is lying on. The Girls get sick of this and pretty much leave the town on its own. This all well and good until the inevitable monster comes rampaging into town. And of course, the townspeople ask for the Girls' help. After forcing them to promise to get off their butts and do some things for themselves, the girls instruct them on how to save the day.
    • Another episode had the girls racing to get home after school because they were excited to go on vacation. They go so fast that they end up time travelling 50 years into the future. They find that HIM has taken over Townsville while they were gone and turned it into a hellish dystopia. After witnessing this, the girls manage to undo the time travel and invoke a variation of this trope, telling the Professor that they can't leave Townsville. Ever.
  • Special Agent Oso, a preschool-targeted series about a stuffed bear who helps young kids do basic tasks has a mild example in that Oso is sometimes invited by the parents of the kids to stay for a meal or other such invitations, but can't accept because he has to get back to his training mission.
  • Deconstructed in Steven Universe. Steven becomes so used to helping other people that it becomes damaging to his mental state when he can't. Future explores this much further by showing that, with the galaxy now at peace and his friends and family having improved their lives, Steven feels like he lost his one purpose in life.
  • A lot of stories have established that Clark would go nuts having to be Superman every single moment. Superman said this outright in the Superman: The Animated Series episode "The Late Mr. Kent".
    Superman: I am Clark. I need to be Clark! I'd go crazy if I had to be Superman all the time!

    Real Life 
  • In an incredibly sad real-life case of this, Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who in 1993, at literal gunpoint, took pictures of starving Sudanese children, died by suicide because he was haunted by the feeling of being helpless to save any of them.note 
  • During the 1937-1938 Rape of Nanjing, at the Ginling Girls' College, the lead American professor, Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and a professor of education, worked tirelessly in a parallel effort to preserve the young women of her school from rape. In cooperation with the German (member of the Nazi party) businessman John Rabe, her efforts to protect her young women from degradation were ceaseless. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of girls were spared gang rape as a result of her efforts. Upon her return home in 1941, she, too, committed suicide.
  • Watching interviews with Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, military commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda during the Rwandan Genocide, is rather soul-crushing. He basically blames himself personally for the uselessness of the UN's response, despite having had fewer than 500 people and next to no support from the UN or anyone else.
  • Major Charles Whittlesey, who was the commander of the famous "Lost Battalion" in World War I, managed to keep his men alive under impossible odds and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his achievements. However, the combination of guilt over his inability to save all of his men and the fact that people were always constantly reminding him of the event were likely factors in his subsequent suicide.
  • Triage. The easy part is sorting out the ones who are dead and the ones that don't need any emergency care. The hard part is passing those people who need emergency care, but it would be too time- and resource-intensive versus their chances of survival. The only thing you can do is quick pain management and maybe find a volunteer to stay with them while they die and you move on to the next.
    • Becomes even worse when painkillers can't be spared.
  • Both Oskar Schindler and Karl Plagge, two Nazi Party members (well, Plagge was kicked out for not being sufficiently racist) who between them saved hundreds of Jews by claiming they were "essential workers", apparently felt enormous guilt for the rest of their lives that they couldn't save more. Plagge even refused to be officially exonerated at his de-Nazification trial, requesting to be reclassified as a "follower" of Nazism instead. Both were awarded the title of "Righteous Among Nations" by the State of Israel for their efforts, however.
  • In a way, this trope applies to anyone with a decent first-world income. These two articles point out that a really small amount of money can improve or save a life through an efficient charity. So every time you buy a computer, or go on vacation, or donate to an inefficient charity, a life that could have been saved wasn't. Hardly anyone thinks like that (because it's a slippery slope from there to "every bite of food you take could have gone to someone hungrier"), but there's an element of truth to it. On the other hand, using this argument to guilt people into giving or to "feel lucky they're where they're at" is an informal fallacy called the Appeal to Worse Problems.


Video Example(s):


"I Could Have Got More Out."

Oskar Schindler saved at least 1,100 Jews from their certain deaths in the Holocaust. Yet he cries profusely, because he felt as if he could have saved more, even if it would have been just one more person.

How well does it match the trope?

4.86 (14 votes)

Example of:

Main / SamaritanSyndrome

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