Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rescue the Drowning

I, of course, mean this literally.
But, more importantly, I mean it figuratively.

I will forever be an advocate of nurturing a personal list of priorities in any order that suits us – we can put our careers before our health, our health before our families… our quest for knowledge over our need for creativity – but there should always be room, at the very top of our priorities, to – at a moment’s notice – drop everything to help those in immediate need, in front of us.

It doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should. We get caught up in our daily lives and become distracted with the energy we devote to accomplishing whatever tasks it is that we’ve set ourselves to. Ambition is admirable. But only if we retain our human capacity for compassion when its most critical.

I was once reading a magazine advice column and came across a letter written by a woman who explained, with obvious desperation and remorse, that she had hit a dog with her car just a few weeks earlier.

And left it.

She was on her way to an interview, she explained.
She said this simply, as though all of the world reading would automatically understand this rationale, accept it as justification, and commiserate with her decision.

I didn’t. I was reeling.
It didn’t help that she then went on to explain that she drove the same route the next day and saw the dog “curled up against a building.”

Curled up against a building.
That line makes my skin crawl as much now as it did when I first read it.
Each time I dwell on it, I feel emotion clawing at the inside of my throat.

Why? Look at that line straight on: that detail means that the dog didn’t die instantly, as this woman may have initially convinced herself. It died slowly. It died in a process drawn out long enough for the poor creature to move over to a wall and curl up against it.

This imagery absolutely shook me.
How could someone knowingly cause such harm and then walk away? How could they not only do it once, but twice? (You tell me: who’s to say the dog wasn’t still alive the second day? Here she had a second chance to turn back. And still she didn’t.)

I felt disgusted that I was associated with this woman by merit of species. I felt disgusted that human beings are capable of doing such ugly things and then, in their reluctance to accept responsibility for their actions, instead write to an advice columnist in an obvious plea for forgiveness – for someone to tell them, “hey, sweetie. It could’ve happened to anyone. It’s okay.”

“Please help me,” she wrote. “I feel so guilty.”
The advice columnist’s reply? “Maybe you could volunteer at a dog shelter to feel better.”
In short: this is easily resolved. And it’s okay.

It’s not okay.
(I wrote to the magazine - and the advice columnist - telling them so. I never heard back.)


I didn't understand how someone could adhere to priorities this blindly - how she could harbor such a distorted sense of what's important and, what's worse, feel that people will actually relate to and sympathize with it?

She wanted to feel reassured that other people would’ve done the same.
I want to live my life believing we wouldn’t.

I remember thinking: "I would never, ever choose the job interview over the dog. I know I would stop. I know a lot of other people who would, too. I cannot fathom how someone couldn’t."

What's more, I would still go to the interview afterwards. If a company looks down on you for that decision, they are garbage – not you. And you shouldn’t want to work with them if that’s the side of the moral fence on which they stand.

If we all defended our natural instincts rather than our socially-instilled priorities, maybe this woman wouldn't have had to write to an advice columnist with her (naturally-occurring) regret...


More than a year later, with the story of the dog tucked away somewhere inside me but not at all forgotten, I was reading Rachel Carson’s biography. It painted the image of a woman with such a strong love of the natural world, she pursued a career in marine biology - and eventually became one of the most respected scientists in the field.

Carson spent the middle of her career as the editor in chief of all USFWS industry publications. She embraced the role with tremendous seriousness, and was apparently a tyrant in the office, accepting no excuses and nothing short of excellence from her team.

Once, however, she came in to the office late – something that never happened for a woman who ruled it with an iron fist - with her work blouse covered in dried blood.

As it turns out, Carson had seen a dog, recently hit, on the side of the road that morning, and had pulled her car over and scooped the animal up, taking it the nearest vet and paying for its treatment.

When she was later asked about this, she explained, simply: “I always abide by Thoreau's 'Rescue the Drowning.'”

She later went on to write “Silent Spring,” the book that spurred the creation of the EPA and ended the use of DDT as a pesticide in the US.

So, it probably goes without saying that she was certainly not a woman of small accomplishments.
(And, presumably, she too was a woman who still took her interviews seriously.)

From whose shoes would you like to look back on your decisions in life?

Maintain larger-than-life ambition regarding your life purpose, and organize your priorities as you see fit…
But always, always: rescue the drowning.

No comments:

Post a Comment