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.
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.
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.