It’s a Secret

Instead of people simply seeing this story on TV and saying, “Oh it’s nice that someone out there is brave,” I wish they would say, “it’s nice to see a reminder that we are a brave and caring people.”  We are.  You are.  That’s the message that I wish the news coverage would talk about more.  Stories of ordinary people being brave broadcasts that secret.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My ensuing actions say something about all of us, about average people.  We rise to occasions.  It would be absurd to think, for example, that the folks on flight 93, which crashed in PA on 9/11, who acted way braver than me, were by some fluke of travel planning in the top 1% of brave people in the country, or even the top 10% or 30%.  Nah.  They were most likely a swath of regular folks.  This tells me that the average Joe can be counted on to be brave and is most likely capable of incredible human kindnesses.  So what do we do with that?  I think we should treat each other with the respect that brave people deserve and take some comfort from the fundamental decency that pervades our society–though too often in secret.

Some disagree.  They say I have to look no further than the people in the video just standing around and not helping.  There were hundreds of people there just watching, they say.  What about the guy who filmed it?  What decent human being chooses to film instead of help?

But what should they have done?  What is helpful in that situation?  Even in retrospect, in the calm of my living room, I have a hard time thinking up things they should have been doing.  In the chaos of the moment, how can we expect people to have any clue what to do or even to know what is going on.  People are always morally bound to do what they think is right, but if you have no idea what is right, you have no decision to make.  Those of you who have read my manuscript know that if there is no decision to be made, then nothing can be revealed about a person’s character.  If there is nothing you think you should do, it isn’t even possible to reveal how brave or cowardly you might be.

Ok.  So why was I doing something:

1) Most people who watched the event unfold came later.  Right when it happened, there were only a few people near where he fell in.  Of those people, I was the first to react, but there were reasons for that.

2) I am physically fit.  Maybe other people did not think they were capable of pulling someone up.  I certainly wouldn’t want my wife jumping down there.  The risk to herself would not be worth the small amount of help she could offer in grabbing him.  (FYI, my wife laughed at this; she thinks it’s true.)

3) I ran up thinking that all it would take was jumping down and picking him up before the next train came.  So, I became involved in the situation before I understood how dangerous it was.

4) Of the people there when he fell, I was likely one of the most trained people there and possibly the most experienced in life or death situations.  I was a lifeguard in high school.  On separate occasions, two kids who jumped in the pool not knowing how to swim.  On one of my first days as Head Lifeguard, one girl fell off the high dive onto the concrete and was convulsing terribly.  I remember running around like a chicken with my head cut off not really knowing what to do.  I responded in ways I wish I didn’t, but I certainly learned from the situation.  During high school I myself had several concussions.  I also broke my arm in spectacular leaping fashion when I failed to see a big sewer drain opening up before me as I ran through woods at night.  As I was being carried to the ambulance surrounded by friends, somebody on each side offered to hold my hand.  I was so in shock that I apologized several times, saying how sorry I was that I could not hold the one person’s hand because when I did my arm hurt.  Once my buddy stepped on some thick wire that speared his foot, and I had to pull it out for him.  Twice I was attacked by a swarm of bees.  Once my dad, another buddy, and I were almost killed when we were snorkeling and did not see the weather change and a storm pick up.  In college, I was a volunteer firefighter for two years.  I also took a 3 week course and became a Wilderness First Responder, kinda like an EMT for the woods.  We did dozens of practice scenarios when somebody was hurt, and we had to respond appropriately.  During college, I also checked a thief into some arcade machines as he was running away from police.  In Buffalo, I almost drowned in the Niagara River, and I lived in an area where I could occasionally hear gunfire and hooliganism.  In Atlanta, in the process of getting ACE certified, I took CPR training for the 4th time.  And these are just the highlights.  Maybe somebody on the platform from the start had more pressure situation experience and training than me.  Maybe not.  But I know that that background is what allowed me to stay calm and talk the guy through it.  I know it’s what made me realize that he probably did not even know where he was and probably could not deduce it in his present state with the cacophony of noise around him, or at least that had been my experience when I was in shock.  (Still it is entirely possible that what I did was INCREDIBLY stupid.  I think in firefighter training I was told not to grab people who were being shocked.  Oops.)

When somebody freezes in a pressure situation.  It does not mean they are not brave.  It means that they have no idea what to do.  They still really want to help, and they think they should be helping, but they have no idea what to do.  I only knew what to do, or had an opinion about what I should do, because of my experience.

Ultimately, I think it is likely that not a single person at the incident knew exactly what they should do and yet failed to act out of fear and cowardice.  If so, nobody there was cowardly at all, and the man who caught it on video did do some real good: the video-footage is proof for all of us that we are a brave and caring people.

That video now has almost 60,000 views!  Crazy.  And my friend Andie just told me the front page of Yahoo News had it up for a while.  The most accurate coverage though I think was done by CBS.

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

6 responses to “It’s a Secret

  • Anna

    This entry reminds me of something – I’m not quite sure what it’s called – a theory? posture? Have you heard of “Everybody is always doing the best they can”? It’s an interesting way of seeing things, and it provides an internal benefit when adopted.

  • Ryan

    Jer, I think I’m going to have to disagree w/ your premise that “we are all brave and caring people.” I do agree that we all have the *potential* to be brave and caring but, under many circumstances, we don’t do those things.

    I site as examples: the Stanley Milgram experiment. Participants believed they were administering lethal doses of electricity to another (a confederate (not in the civil-war sense but in the “knowing participant in the study” sense)).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

    Also, there is the “diffusion of responsibility” phenomenon. People have been attacked, raped, etc in full view of the public and no one does a thing.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_responsibility

    While I won’t chalk up your behavior to simple psychology (the fact that you were in a small-ish group of people and one of the closest to the incident did work on your behalf), I do think you need to recognize the uniqueness of your behavior.

    It takes a more unique person psychologically to do what you did. The question is, why? I think, Jer, you are a person who doesn’t think the way others think and that this is a good thing.

    There is a field of psychology that hopes to study not just “when things go bad” but “what kind of person makes the right decision.” Often overlooked in the studies are the kind of people who say to Milgram, “no, I will not administer more shock,” or who, in a large group, are the first or only to step up to help.

    You are one of these people.

  • Ryan

    I also don’t want to sound like a “Debbie Downer” (my apologies to the Debbies of the world). I totally resonate w/ your line:
    “I think we should treat each other with the respect that brave people deserve and take some comfort from the fundamental decency that pervades our society–though too often in secret.”

  • Cary

    Your listing of your past training and experiences was informative for me! You really have been pretty trained in this kind of stuff. However, there is a gift of going from the mundane to being thrust in a life or death–sort of experiencing emotional G forces–and being able to think clearly and calmly. Not a lot of people can do that. I, for one, don’t think I can very well.
    You have that gift, Jer. And it is a gift. And you used it to good effect–way to go!

  • kbeebs9

    I think it’s interesting that you point to lack of knowledge about what to do as a source of inaction. And there’s a grain of truth in that: each person would most likely act in bravery if they knew exactly what to do. However, learning what to do in crisis situations is part of the process of exhibiting bravery, and most people don’t bother with the effort to do so. Perhaps the source of your bravery was not the actual action that you performed, but rather the persistence in your training to be able to save people when they’re in danger. It was ultimately your initiative to be prepared for these kind of situations that truly made you brave.

    People can be brave without training when their own lives or the lives of their loved ones are at stake, but I think true bravery comes with training.

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