When to Stay and Fight and When to Retreat

Those who fight and run away, live to fight another day. 

That little adage was always told to me with a little smile, a knowing wink, an understanding that sometimes the smart thing to do is to save your own skin. When I was a child, it forgave me for not being risk-taking or for failing to be courageous. As an adult, recalling that proverb justified my removing myself from unfamiliar, uncertain, or morally ambiguous situations.

Don’t Look via wikiwhow.com

I am reminded of that saying today because of the coincidence of two significant events; one real, one fantasy. Both events involved people challenged by terrifying violence and both involved people who chose not to run away. The real event was the shooting of congregants at a synagogue in California. The fantasy event was the Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones

At the synagogue, Lori Kaye jumped between the shooter and the Rabbi, saving his life and ending her own. In Game of Thrones, many of the key characters faced an unbeatable enemy army. At the same time, though, hundreds of soldiers in the defending army retreated behind the fortress walls.

Game of Thrones Season 8 Spoilers via Daily Express UK

When I watched the TV show, I was completely engrossed in the epic battle and cheered when one of my favorite characters was victorious. I actually applauded.  However, if it had been real life and I was involved in it, I would not have been able to see her triumph. I would have been one of those who retreated to the safe zone behind the walls. I would have saved my own skin.

If I had been in that synagogue during the real-life crisis, I would have been hiding under a pew, or just recoiling in shock and horror. I don’t think quickly, and once when I was actually facing significant danger from a stranger I froze, so I know I am useless in a crisis.

There is, of course, no useful comparison between a real individual assault or real domestic terrorism and fictional tribal battles, and I don’t mean to suggest there is any moral equivalence. I simply find myself reflecting on the rare person who stays to fight and the majority who run away or who are incapable of action. I wonder where some people find the wherewithal to face an enemy they cannot conquer. How does a person become willingly self-sacrificial?

The logical thing, the smart thing, the obviously wise thing would be to run away. No-one criticizes those who retreat because most of us would be among them. And, after all, retreating is often the best choice. At the same time, though, we admire and exalt the heroes. We all wish we could be them, we are astounded by their strength, we envy their courage. But, most of the time most of us do not have what it takes; the presence of mind, the opportunity, the strength, the determination, the clarity of thought, the moral certainty.

I am in awe of Lori Kaye and all those who face the enemy even at the cost of their own lives. I hold them in high esteem and respect them not only for their sacrifice but also for holding up an ideal for the rest of us. Perhaps, one day, each of us will know instinctively that we can and should save others, even if it costs us everything. In the meantime, though, I am pretty sure I will run back to the safety of the fortress.




  1. Anne, This brought me to tears. Not all of us can stand and fight so to speak. Necessary too are people who are able to chronicle that which has happened. I froze when Frank had his stroke right in front of me. I will forever wonder what would have happened had I acted promptly and called 911.


    • Oh, I am so sorry, Mary Beth. This blog post was my way of processing my own inability to act in a crisis and I did not anticipate it causing distress to you or to anyone. Please forgive me.

  2. Anne, with all of the violence today, I have thought about this often but only because I have 2 small children that are dependent on me to keep them safe as possible. I would have to protect them even if it meant giving my own life. I am more proactive when taking trips with them. where to stop for bathroom breaks, when and where to get gas, doors always locked etc; . Now if it was just me I would probably be so pissed off that someone was ruining my day I would beat the crap out of them. At least that is my fantasy not to be a hero just to prove a point don’t rain on my day! I also hope that a situation never arises that I would have to learn the truth if I would stay and fight or retreat.

  3. Oooh this was such a good read! Very thought provoking. We all ask ourselves these questions and imagine these situations.
    I do both,- step in and step out- it all depends on the situation. I do tend to jump in more than not but its not because I’m brave. I was horribly traumatized as a child and that experience scored into me, a great anxiety about the suffering of others. It’s like I have a primal need to stop it and so I act. Most times without thinking. I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t been hurt, most people don’t call my bluff. If they did, I’d probably do whatever it took to protect myself too and that might include hiding or hightailing it out of there. There is nothing wrong with either response. We’re all human and if everyone confronted or stepped in we’d have nobody left. If everyone, ran, froze or hid, we’d have nobody left either! I think a good mix is beneficial to our species and since it’s based on so many things out of our control we can all relax into the mystery of it and just do our own thing with peace in our hearts. We are who we are, and its OK.
    Thank you for stirring up my brain!

    • I’m glad I gave you food for thought but sorry to hear about your childhood trauma.

      I think you are right about humankind needing all of the responses in order to maintain the species. I suppose that those of us who are not brave in some circumstances might be brave, or act on impulse, in others.

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