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?

  • KRJ

    One other factor that may play a role in the decision to go into or away from danger, I believe, is also the impact of a decision on your family/loved ones.

    If a family member/loved one is in danger, I think more people are going to decide to head into danger. Conversely, if you are the only family member/loved one in danger, you may make a the flight decision.

    I am not saying this is an absolute, but I know when I have been in situations that have gotten the adrenaline flowing and snap decisions need to be made, those were part of the overwhelming thoughts rushing through my head.

  • Bob Moffitt

    You should feel pride, not guilt, to share a profession with Julie Pearce, Bob. I’m proud of what my fellow Minnesotans have done — and will continue to do — for the people of Haiti.

  • Andy Shold

    I confronted the same thing after Hurricane Katrina. I was working on my Master’s Degree at the time (therefore, I had no money), and called Red Cross to see how I could help.

    They told me simply putting in a week or two was not enough, I would need to dedicate several months if I was going to be a significant contribution. If I left college, I would’ve lost my grant, and therefore I’d have to effectively drop out of graduate school to go and help for 3 months.

    The lady at Red Cross said that the most effective way I could help, in general, was to volunteer locally and donate “when I could afford to”. Volunteering locally not only improves your community, but I’m under the impression it also freed up some of the other volunteers (or full time workers?) to go rushing in when they had the opportunity to do so without radically changing their own lives (i.e. dropping out of school, quitting their job, etc.). And a humanitarian aid organization like Red Cross will always benefit from financial donations, often moreso than physical contributions (unless you’re already trained in a skill that they need, and wouldn’t need training before helping – such as a nurse or doctor).

    So how do I cope with the helplessness of not helping now? Help locally. Get involved. Just because it’s not in the news, doesn’t imply there’s no suffering that you couldn’t help to improve nearby.

    I’m all for the unsung heroes. And I think MPR is doing more than the average person’s share to help make everyday life better both locally (i.e. Minnesota), and in Haiti. That’s something to be proud of.