I followed her gaze to a car stopped at a light and saw to my horror a woman being prevented from exiting the passenger side door by the man who was driving. He held her hair clumped in his hand. She was screaming and crying and trying to free herself to no avail.
My wife yelled at me, “Call 9-1-1!” and ran toward the car. In turn, I yelled at another pedestrian, “Call 9-1-1!” and ran after my wife. We reached the woman together. By now the light had turned green and the driver was not only continuing to cling to the woman’s hair but starting to move forward slowly. I thrust my head inside their car and he exclaimed at me, “She’s crazy!” but then let go of her. My wife and I rushed the woman off the street and to the sidewalk while the man drove away. Moments later no fewer than four police cars came roaring into the area, adrenaline pumping as they erupted from their squad cars, ready for what must have been painted as a truly emergent situation by whoever ended up calling them.
It had been a domestic disturbance. The woman, in tears, reported having mentioned another man to the driver, her boyfriend. “Then he just started hitting me,” she said in bewilderment, a bruise on her cheek already beginning to swell and discolor. She related her story to the police while my wife and I spoke with two other drivers who’d stopped their cars to help as well.
HOW PLANNING HELPS US
I found myself returning to the events of that morning several days later, wondering about the initial reactions of everyone involved. My wife’s reaction to rush forward to help seemed to have been instinctive. My initial reaction was to freeze and wonder just what I was seeing. Only when I saw my wife leaping into potential danger did I leap after her.
When I asked my wife about it, she told me she thinks about such situations constantly and rehearses in her mind exactly what she would want herself to do ahead of time, almost like professional skiers will often run a course mentally before actually skiing it. For her, leaping to help the woman represented a following of a plan she’d already carried out in her mind countless times before.
There seems to be a real advantage to having thought through and even “pre-programmed” a response before being thrust into situations that require split-second thinking. That way, you’re much more likely to act in the most effective way (as you’ve presumably considered several responses and chosen the best in a calm moment of reflection) or in a way most consistent with the person you want to be.
If, for example, you don’t ever consider the possibility that something bad could happen to you, you’ll fail to prepare for it adequately, and that failure could literally mean the difference between life and death. My wife, son, and I recently went on our first cruise. The first day the crew held a lifeboat drill in which every passenger was required to participate. As I listened to people joking about the possibility of needing to know what we were being taught, I found myself astounded at the ability we have as human beings to deny. Certainly the likelihood of the ship sinking was low, but did anyone there really not remember the Titanic? It’s hubris to imagine bad things only happen to others and foolish not to prepare for them in a reasonable way. Speed in an emergency is often the key ingredient for survival, and nothing promotes speed like rehearsal, whether physical or mental.
Of course, you can’t rehearse for every disaster. Just which disasters you do rehearse will depend on just which bad possibilities concern you. Should city dwellers rehearse for the possibility of a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack? In the previous two decades this might have seemed foolish. Perhaps not so much now. My wife and I actually have a plan for this.
HOW PLANNING CAN SHAPE YOUR CHARACTER
Since the day we encountered that woman, I’ve consciously worked on planning reactions to situations in which I feel ambivalent about how to behave. For me, this ends up being things like: I’m asked to do something I don’t really want to do for good reasons but feel compelled to do for bad ones; I’m confronted by a stranger needing help; or I’m asked for money by a homeless person. I wrote about that last situation in an earlier post, What Compassion Is, and since then have settled on the response I want myself to have, have rehearsed it in my mind, and have found myself successfully carrying it out as a result.
Once the woman my wife and I rescued had calmed down, one of the officers who’d been speaking to her came over and told us she’d refused to press charges. With a knowing look born of years of experience in handling domestic disturbances, the officer said, “You know how that goes.” Sadly, having cared for my share of battered women in my medical practice, I did. I wondered at the time how often she’d been the victim of domestic violence before, if this had been a pattern in her life. I’m well aware of the complexities that often prevent an abused person from leaving their abuser, but in retrospect now, I wonder if she’d been able to rehearse standing up for herself, or rehearse leaving her boyfriend if he ever became physical with her, if that might have increased the likelihood of her actually doing it.
Next Week: How I Met And Married My Wife