Tag Archives: bravery

My Segment on the Dr. Drew Show

If I had a bucket list, disagreeing with Anderson Cooper on national television would be on it.  And I would be crossing it off!

A few weeks ago, a man got pushed onto the tracks of a New York subway station.  Someone managed to take the picture below, which wound up on the cover of the Post.  You probably saw it.

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The next day, in the context of a national bitch session in which America heaped blame on bystanders for their inaction (including the cameraman) and their own culture for producing a population of cowards, I was asked to join a “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show on HLN, a CNN sister channel, to talk about why we acted in the face of danger when others did not.  What was our awesome sauce?  Why did I reach out and grab the guy’s hand, who was getting shocked by the third rail, when I knew I could die?  (Checkout the 15 minutes of fame tab above, which I suppose now is my 15.5 minutes of fame, if you don’t know what I am talking about.)

Sorry it has taken a long time to post the video clip of my interview.  I know many of you have been waiting.  My segment is only 2 minutes and starts 12.5 minutes in. I was told the discussion with Anderson Cooper went long and they lost my feed for second.  But for what it’s worth:

While I was super pleased to be on the show and enjoyed myself, I was frustrated that I did not get a chance to share a couple of important points, especially when I felt like we were all living in a fun little fantasy.  While Cooper was right on some things, and the conversation was in many ways more substantive than I have come to expect from cable news, he is completely wrong about wider culture.  It is ludicrous to think that emergency situations are some magical prism in which our true character is revealed.  Keeping Your Head is a specific skill that is cultivated through practice.  Most of us have little.

Instead, we do what we are trained to do. The modern human, generally, is good at whipping out phones and taking pictures. We usually have no clue what to do in pressure situations.  A couple reasons might be that our lives include sitting in cubicles and exclude panicked flight from saber-toothed tigers.  But, when the modern human does have a clue (read soldiers, fireman, police officer, etc.), we almost always act bravely.

After I grabbed the guy on the subway and it was caught on film, everyone in my life was calling me a hero, and it was obnoxiously irrefutable that I was one.  I was uncomfortable with it, it made me reflect, and I came to a startlingly life-affirming conclusion that I have blogged about previously.  Here is the elevator speech:

We are a brave and caring species: you, me, pretty much everybody.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My actions says 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%, and that this flight full of super duper heroes happened to be one that was hijacked. Nah.  The folks who stormed the cockpit on flight 93 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.”

Famous psychologist and Stanford proffessor Phillip Zimbardo agrees.  He writes in  “The Banality of Heroism”:

The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,”…[which ascribes] very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us.

But if incredible bravery is normal, why are we so blind to it?  Why did the country roundly condemn the bystanders who let the man die on the subway tracks?  Good question.  I’ll blog about that next time, but I’ll say this much: What struck me as I listened to Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew talk before I went on the air is that negative news and looking down on others seems to serve an important social function that I had been reading about in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.  Namely, gossiping about what’s wrong with other people helps us bond to the people that we gossip with.

More later…

Oh…and here is a picture of Alicia and I at a little shin-dig that happened 20 blocks away from our house.  Thank you Derek Schwabe for getting us tickets!

Alicia and I at Obama’s 2nd Innagural.

Jer and Alicia Clifton at Obama’s 2nd inaugural, 2013

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Fox&Friends

Seriously, who is making these decisions to allow stutterers on the air? : )


Reflections

The last 30 hours have brought a whirl of reflections into my brain.  Some are not important.  For example, I could have sworn that the guy who jumped onto the tracks was wearing a white shirt, and he is decidedly not.  It’s crazy what you can get straight-up wrong.  I have reflections about feeling manly, that my strength was useful for something besides lifting heavy boxes and opening stubborn jars.  I reflect on death and our transience on this earth.  I also have a number of reflections as I compare this event to what happened seven years ago in London when I checked that thief into those slot machines (maybe I’ll post that story sometime).  But the one thought, or rather, the one train of thought worth sharing, is one that contains something genuinely new and exciting to me.

The film Love Actually is a good teacher.  It does a great job at showing how love is indeed much more prevalent than one might realize–just go to a big airport and watch people as they reunite.  The kisses are clumsy.  Everyone is hugging.  Love is thick and human.  I believe that despite monstrous war, greed, and avarice, love is actually more defining of our collective existence, only we rarely see it’s enormity and take note.  Sunday’s events proved to be another good teacher of how much love permeates my existence.  For example, I already knew my wife loved me desperately before this whole thing happened.  But apparently, my understanding did not come close to plumbing the massive depths of that love.  Likewise, I knew a number of people thought I was a good guy, but I had no idea how many people genuinely cared for me until I received several hundred emails and texts over the last few days.  But Sunday’s events proved a good teacher for a similar yet different reason.

Most of the texts and emails I received were effusive in their praise.  In many I was called a hero.  Being called a “hero” is a first for me and has had a surprising effect.  I love telling stories, but apparently only ones in which I am being a goofball.  This one I can’t seem to accurately tell without making myself look brave and heroic, and it makes me cringe.

Bravery is for special people, right?  Heroism is for really really awesome people, right?  Without ever fully articulating it, it has nevertheless been my belief that only a select few were truly brave and heroic.  So how can I tell this story which seems inextricable from my own acts of bravery?  In telling it, I feel like I am not just bragging a little, a long standing tradition of mine which I enjoy and have come to master; I am bragging a lot.

But I am conveniently mistaken in my understanding of heroism.  In truth, heroism is normal.  Bravery is normal.  Just like how love is in fact more abundant than selfishness and greed, bravery and heroism is more defining of our world than cowardice.

This is not some clever way of coming to terms with calling myself a hero (each time I say that I think of the song, “I can be your hero baby…”) or making my readers feel good about themselves ( Say “You’re a hero!”  “No, you’re a hero.”  “No, No, you’re a hero.” in a consecutively less sincere and higher pitched voice).  This seems to me to just be a rational response to the evidence.

I do not have the energy to give this point the passionate, intelligent argument it deserves or needs.  But I will say this: its seems ludicrous to suggest that the population on flight 93 were composed of the bravest people in America who by happenstance found themselves on the same flight.  It seems absurd to think that the firefighters serving at the World Trade Center were somehow a collection significantly braver and more heroic than those firefighters throughout the rest of the country, as if there was something magical in New York City drinking water.

Instead, these types of events, in which normal people act heroically, reveals more about what is normal than the person who happens to be acting.  This blows my mind!

A great many of us are heroes.  I am fortunate to enjoy some proof of my own courage, but having courage is not what makes me different.  It makes me normal, and that says something about all of us and should inform our perceptions of each other.  As we look at our mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, we should recognize that they too are brave people.  They are heroes deserving respect.  For evidence will not make them a hero.  It will merely reveal what they already are.

So love is more abundant than hate; heroism and courage is more widespread than cowardice.  But that’s only a start.  What I want for all of us is a radically altered perspective of the world which recognizes more accurately its incalculable glory and beauty.  This is not some blind optimism conjured by the hysterics associated with dramatic life-and-death situations.  I vigorously defend this confidence, and try to make it infectious, in a manuscript entitled Therefore Joy.  The book’s train of thought, grounded in the most basic beliefs shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, leaves me in a place where I expect to find things like beauty, love, and heroism around every corner.  These ideas, this insatiable expectation that I will see more and more joyous sights, has changed my life and the lives of a few of my friends, but that is all the change I have been capable of so far.

During the Fox5 interview, the reporter asked me what I was still hoping to get out of this experience.  A number of things popped into my head.  For example, I would really like to meet up with Wes someday, have a beer, and make sure he’s ok.  I would really like to learn more about trains.  Mostly and especially, I really need some sleep.  But what I was particularly excited about is something that has already started happening; people are paying attention.  Maybe if enough people check out my blog, or subscribe to it, I can convince a publisher to take a chance on me, and I can finally get these ideas out there where they might be helpful for more people.  Besides that, I’m good to go, which clearly means that I am ridiculously blessed.

Thanks to all of you who have written and shown your support and love over the past day or so.  I am sorry I have not been able to reply to everyone.  Also, you can likely expect us to return to our regularly scheduled programming soon.  I promised my mother to keep my adventures more intellectual than real for a while.


Why I Was Late for Work Today

Later the police told me that about once a year somebody falls from the platform onto the train tracks of Atlanta’s public transit system.  This year, I guess, it happened about 20 feet from where I was standing.

I am on my way to band practice.  It’s about 3:45, and I am staring down to my left where the train will approach, even though the sign says that it won’t be here for another 11 minutes.  I’m running late again.

I hear a crashing noise to my right and screams from the platform on the other side of the tracks.  I peer over the edge of my platform, and, sure enough, 20 or so feet down there is a white male crumpled between the tracks and the third rail.

I run down towards him, throwing off my sunglasses, backpack, ipod, and flip flops.  I am thinking, “This is kinda like a House episode I just watched.”  I’m also happy that I have just looked at the screen, and I know we should have 10 minutes to get the guy out before the train hits him.  “This will be so easy,” I think to myself, “I can totally get this guy out.”  I am about to jump down when someone next to me screams,

“Don’t touch him!  Don’t touch him!  You’ll fucking die!  The electricity!  Don’t fucking touch him!”

I never turned.  I never saw his face.  So I have no idea who that guy was.  But the screaming guy to my left, through sheer vocal intensity, stopped me from jumping in.  I had not even thought about electricity.

I crouch down on the platform directly above the guy who had fallen and for a second or two I don’t know what to do.  I keep glancing down the tracks where the oncoming train will appear and looking at the guy.

The guy who fell in looks epileptic.  He is convulsing and seems unconscious.  At that point another guy jumps into the middle of the track.  He is about to help when that same screaming voice from my left subdues him as well.  He stands there, looking at the convulsing man crumpled in the train tracks, up at me, then back down at the man.  I didn’t know what to do either.

He stops convulsing and is hardly moving.  Then I hear somebody else from the far platform start to encourage the man to get up, and I think, at the moment, that is the best thing I can do.  For the next 15 or so seconds, I feel like I am just being a FitWit personal trainer, my day job.  I start out by saying,

“My name is Jer.  I am standing above you because you have fallen down in the tracks.  You need to know where you are.  You are in danger of getting shocked and we can’t touch you.  It’s up to you.  So dig deep and stand up.”

To be honest, I don’t know if I said all those things exactly, but I remember telling him my name and where he was in a loud, surprisingly calm voice.  I get louder and louder and eventually scream at him “Man the fuck up and stand up!”  As I explain the situation to him, he stirs a bit more, but he is still extremely slow and lethargic.

“Get the fuck up!” I scream.

He moves some more and this time touches something.  Electric shocks flash up and down his body.  He’s now filthy, but I worry that the black marks are not just grease and dirt but scorch marks.

I scream something like, “You need to ignore it and stand up!”  Getting shocked seems to make him realize what a dangerous situation he’s in.  He’s finally ready to shake himself awake and get up.  His eyes are blinking as he struggles to prop himself up on his elbow.  He looks up at me and reaches out his hand.

I realized in retrospect that there was definitely a moment of decision.  Nobody had touched him yet, and he was clearly getting constantly shocked by who knows how many volts.  But I remember thinking, “I can’t leave him hanging.”

I grab his hand and pull.  I realize I am getting shocked through his hand.  It’s repetitive and jabbing pain, like sticking my finger repetitively in an electrical outlet.  My adrenaline is pumping like mad.

I pull him up to his feet and drag him roughly over the edge of the platform, fully clear of ledge. He collapses on the ground as people clap and holler.  After looking at him for a second, I tell someone to call 911.  The guy is clearly in shock and showering me with thanks saying, “It was you man.  You did it.”  I tell him it was him, that he did it, and then I collapse too.

Epilogue:

We sat there panting for a bit.  He seemed ok, but delirious, and I still didn’t know if all the black marks on him were burns or grease.  But I think he was just happy to be alive, and I was too.

We sat there grinning at each other.  Talk about an instant bonding experience.  That’s when I asked him his name, and I think he said Wes.  I’m not sure.  Wes, I hope you read this.  We should meet up and you can buy me a beer!

But cops came and took him away  I sat for a bit longer before gathering my flip flops, ipod, etc., scattered over the platform.  As I stood there, waiting for the next train I guess, I realized just how many people had been watching.  There were probably about 300 people, but who knows.  I was in shock too.

That’s when somebody on the other platform pointed me out and said that I was the one who pulled Wes out.  The cop thought it was someone next to me at first, but then the guy said, “No, that guy,” pointing at me.

“Holy shit.  I guess that really happened,” I thought to myself.

The cop asked in a loud voice across the train tracks, “We need a statement from you.  Can you come to the station?”

“Can I just do it here?” I asked, “I’m late for work.”

The officer nodded his head and sent another officer to run through the maze that is Five Points MARTA station to my platform.  He had me jot down my contact info.  As I was doing so, I told him that I was being shocked as I pulled Wes out.  The officer immediately insisted that I get checked out.

At the station, after I sat in a room by myself and tried to write legibly, I got to talk to the officers.

Apparently, the third rail has 750 volts running through it.  If Wes would have touched it directly he would have been killed instantly.  If his foot would have just nicked it as I was pulling him out, we both would have been killed.  I was dumbfounded.  I had almost left Alicia a widow at age 26.

I’ll talk a bit more later about what I learned from this whole ordeal and other thoughts about it.  But I just wanted to get the story down first.

I just found this video on Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlgtHymISdA