I’ve read that people tend to regret action that ends badly more than inaction that ends badly, and for the past few days, I have been trying to educate myself about inaction and why people fail to act in moments of crisis. Here’s why:
The other day my sweet little puppy was attacked by a giant, Cerebus-type creature while we were out on a walk. I won’t spare you the details: it took six people to get this monster off my dog; there was blood everywhere; people were screaming. After, the owner just shrugged and walked away, while my puppy needed multiple stitches, sedation, and weeks (if not months) of repair—to his psyche, for starters.
Of course it was horrifying. But when I replay the scene in my head, which I cannot stop doing, all I hear is this woman on the street screaming at me—and I mean screaming: “DO SOMETHING!!!!!”
Why was she screaming? Was I just standing there while my puppy got mauled? Was I doing nothing? You might be thinking: well, duh, you froze; that’s normal. But I don’t think that’s what happened. What happened was: I saw my dog hanging out of the mouth of this killer. I saw his owner trying to pry open his jaws. I saw several people jump into the fray, and I thought: my dog is dead, it’s over.
This isn’t freezing. This is more like I made some kind of instant and self-preserving choice to accept the worst-case scenario and begin the process of healing myself right then and there. I thought about what I was going to tell my daughter—how not to devastate her. I thought about the upside—at least I’d get some sleep again. I had all these thoughts in about 10 seconds, which were disrupted by this woman shrieking at me, at which point I guess I realized my puppy didn’t have to die, and I should start punching the dog. So I did.
Now, I have never hurt or tried to hurt a living thing in my life. I didn’t want to do it. I don’t know that I would have if the woman hadn’t screamed at me. Meantime, the dog didn’t even notice (it was like punching a giant slab of meat a la Rocky, minus the strength or skill or working man’s appeal). But that, too, was awful. I punched a dog! Who does this?
I feel like we all think we know how we’ll respond in a crisis, and then we do not live up to expectation. Which brings me to what this is really all about: What would I have done if my daughter had been in similar straights? Nothing? Would I have written her off, too? These are ghastly thoughts, and it might seem extreme to posit equal status between dog and child, but now I don’t know. Would I throw myself at a bear to save my child? I’d always thought so. Of course. But now I’m not so sure.
Look, this isn’t Hamlet. This isn’t the inaction of paradox or deliberation. But I don’t think it was panic, either. I think in that moment something vile transpired between me and the world that’s filled me with shame and disgust, which I’ve now shared with you.