Running toward danger

The Atlantic’s Lane Wallace considers a question most of us — hopefully — will never have to make — when do we run away from danger, and when do we run toward it?

You’ve heard the stories of heroes who could save themselves but still risked their lives to help others. Who among us hasn’t wondered, “Would I do that?”

We may have an instinct for survival, but it clearly doesn’t always kick in the way it should. A guy who provides survival training for pilots told me once that the number one determining factor for survival is simply whether people hold it together in a crisis or fall apart. And, he said, it’s impossible to predict ahead of time who’s going to hold it together, and who’s going to fall apart.

So what is the responsibility of those who hold it together? I remember reading the account of one woman who was in an airliner that crashed on landing. People were frozen or screaming, but nobody was moving toward the emergency exits, even as smoke began to fill the cabin. After realizing that the people around her were too paralyzed to react, she took direct action, crawling over several rows of people to get to the exit. She got out of the plane and survived. Very few others in the plane, which was soon consumed by smoke and fire, did. And afterward, I remember she said she battled a lot of guilt for saving herself instead of trying to save the others.

Could she really have saved the others? Probably not, and certainly not from the back of the plane. Just like the Hiroshima survivors, if she’d tried, she probably would have perished with them. So why do survivors berate themselves for not adding to the loss by attempting the impossible? Perhaps it’s because we get very mixed messages about survival ethics.

Perhaps, it comes down to how we instantly make decisions. But what about the decisions we make when we’ve had time to consider all the angles?

How is it possible — I’m asking myself today — not to feel guilty about not running toward danger, when you read about a woman in Duluth who leaves her career behind to buy a one-way ticket to Haiti?