I spent a summer some years back in the waterways near the northern end of San Francisco Bay, where the Napa River marshland meets up with Vallejo. The sloughs, as they’re called, were ideal for getting ready for the waterways of the Euphrates River Delta in Southern Iraq. That’s why we were there. Because that’s where we figured we were going.
That summer I packed up my boats and my team and all our weapons and gear and loaded them onto tractor trailers and hauled them up 500 miles of interstate from San Diego. I was 26. And it was my first time doing it. And as the detachment commander, I was in charge and responsible for all of it.
When you’re in that line of work in Special Operations, the small boat teams, and you’re working with the “boat guys” as they’re called, you do it all yourself. You don’t hire a shipping company or a driver to haul your crap. You start in point A. And you get it all to point B. And when you get there, you set up shop and get to work. Most will tell you that the getting there part is often the hardest part of the mission. So when we train, we train the whole way, from the time you kiss your wife goodbye on the way out the door, to the time she hands you the screaming baby when you walk back in a month later.
The key thing to remember when you’re on that kind of haul is that you stick together and you keep moving. No matter what happens. You just keep going through the brutal L.A. rush hour traffic. Keep going over the grape vine pass through the mountains on the I-5. Don’t stop for long.
Not even when something bad happens. Especially when something bad happens. Because it will.
This time, we burnt out the brakes on one of our trailers and had to coast off an exit and roll into a field to let them cool off. The look on the face of the 19-year old kid in my detachment from Idaho, who was driving, when my chief and I rolled up next to him in the chase van to tell him to slow down was priceless. After getting an earful from Chief through the wind between open windows, without blinking or any sense of panic, he barked back, “You first. I got no breaks.”
We sat for an hour in a dirt field with the stink of burnt brake pads in the air laughing about it. It scared me to death though. The weight of responsibility was new for me. And I didn’t want to fail. Or worse, get anyone killed.
Something happened not too long after that’s stuck with me nearly fifteen years later. Cruising up the highway in one of the long rural stretches of the great agricultural mecca of America that is Central California, we passed three cars that had just been in a gnarly accident. Two of them were smashed up badly. The other less so. There were suitcases and boxes strewn all over the side of the road. People were wandering around in a fog, disoriented, hazy. There was a woman holding a crying child. A man with a bloody nose sat next to one of the wrecks staring out in to space.
No one looked like they were too badly injured. At least not from a half mile away at 70 miles per hour. But the police weren’t there yet. And we were fifty miles from civilization. The first thing that popped into my mind was, man, I’m glad we weren’t in the middle of that.
My leading petty officer in one of the trailers popped into my ear over the radio.”You see that LT?”
“I see it.” Was all I said back. And we kept trucking. I heard him key the mike on the radio again, but he didn’t say anything else.
A hundred miles up the road when we stopped for gas, the door of the one truck swung open. My leading petty officer charged across the parking lot at me tattoos and muscle flying. He jammed his finger into my chest.
“Why the fuck didn’t you stop LT?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. In the two hours since, I’d forgotten all about it. I’d forgotten about the accident. I’d forgotten that we drove past people who may have been in need with three trucks full of food and medical supplies. At least four of my guys were trained EMTs. One was a hospital corpsman. And we were all field medical trained. I’d forgotten.
But he hadn’t.
The truth was, I didn’t forget. Because it never really occurred to me to stop. We weren’t obligated. I assumed they were fine. They looked fine. But most importantly, I was laser focused on the road ahead of me and the destination I had been assigned to reach and the very real risk that the road and the environment had just shown me when we burned out of the mountains. I’d closed out everything from my mind that wasn’t about keeping my team safe and getting us to our destination.
For me there was never any decision to be made.
It was one of the great teachable failures of my life. And in the 14 or so years since it happened, I’ve thought about it often.
As bad as I feel about that decision, or lack of, and as much as I’ve tried to make up for it with my actions ever since, there was more than just my own character failure at play all those years ago on that highway. I was behaving like a human.
In 1973, psychologists John Darly and Daniel Batson conducted the experiment that would eventually be known even outside psychology academic circles as the Princeton Good Samaritan Study. Darly and Batson took a bunch of students studying theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary School and gave them a questionnaire to establish their level of religiosity. Then they sent them to another building to go do one of a number of different tasks that varied by participant. One of the tasks, ironically, was to give a talk on the story of the good Samaritan from the New Testament. On the way, the team placed someone in their paths who needed help. Before they left though, they gave the students differing levels of urgency. Some were told they were late and had to hurry. Some were told they needed to hurry or they’d be late. And some were told they had plenty of time.
What they found was interesting. And has served as a bit of an anchor for me in understanding some important limits about people.
Darly and Batson found that the only thing that really mattered, relative to whether or not these seminary students wanted to help, was whether or not they were in a hurry. It didn’t matter how religious they were. Or even if they’d just prepared a talk on what the bible says about the virtues of helping others. Students who thought they had plenty of time usually helped. About 2/3 of them stopped what they were doing and helped the stranger. Students that thought they were late, even really religious ones who were about to give a talk on what Jesus said about helping others, didn’t. Nine out of ten times they just walked past. Once they even stepped over the person laying in need. Because we’re humans.
We’re wired to get where where going and get done what we want to get done. We are not wired to stop and help. The road ahead of us is all consuming. We keep our eyes on the ball. We put one foot in front of the other and get going. We’ve got shit to do and places to go. And we’ve got to put America first…
You get the point.
There’s a trap here though. It’s this. I can tell you today that we got to San Francisco on time. And that we completed the training mission. I don’t remember much about the day we got there. I remember nothing about the hour we got there. Chances were, we stretched our legs, bullshitted a little about the drive and then got to work. And, if that hour happened an hour later, it wouldn’t have mattered much. And if it had to happen that way because we helped people in need, no one would have given a rip. And if they did, they would have been wrong.
Here’s the lesson: When it comes to helping people who need help, our default setting needs to be consciously set on yes. Because if it’s not, we’re programmed for no. And if we throw something into our very near consciousness that feels like danger or fear, like losing your breaks in an 18 wheeler while screaming down a 6% incline, or stories on the news about people who look like the people in need harming the people that look like us, then we get even less willing. We close our doors. We turn inward. And we turn our backs. No matter how good a people we think we are. We are human.
And then we do the next very human thing. We regret.
Some of the deepest regrets we have as people, or as a people are when we’ve refused to recognize the needs of others. When we’ve refused to recognize their need as legitimate, their cause as worthy or their type as human. And we either end up regretting them materially because the outcomes are materially bad. Or we regret them because the pain and suffering of others, ignored, over time erodes our humanity.
There’s power in submitting to the painful truth that other people’s problems are worth solving. Not just when they can’t solve them alone. But when we can.