This week, returning home from a business trip, I purchased Chris Cleave’s Little Bee at the airport bookstore. I have stacks of books, some unopened, some partially read, on my nightstand, in a basket on the floor next to my bed, on my desk, even in the bathroom under-the-sink cabinet. I’m a book junkie.
This past year I made deal with myself that I wouldn’t purchase any new books, no matter how tempting, until I started working my way through the plethora of reading material in which I’ve already invested. However, I arrived to the airport earlier than necessary for my 8pm transcontinental flight, and I couldn’t see myself spending the next nine hours with The Catcher in the Rye.
Hoping to find a couple of engaging magazines but not intending to buy a book, I decided to pass some time browsing through Hudson Booksellers. Ha! Denial, it’s a wonderful thing. One foot into a bookstore and I’m like Augustus Gloop in a candy factory.
Little Bee was wonderful – engaging and beautifully written. It’s the story of several people who have an unimaginable encounter. Two of them, Sarah and Andrew, are faced with an impossible choice which they each handle differently. While I loved the story, which is much more complex and nuanced than the single dilemma I mention above, it also gave me a certain measure of discomfort. As a reader, I can’t help but place myself in the characters’ positions and ask “what would I do?” And I’m afraid that the more likely choice would be the more cowardly choice, the choice that would best preserve my own safety rather than the safety of another. I hate to think that, given a choice, I may not be a hero or even “the better person”.
Of course, we never know how we will handle a difficult situation until it’s presented to us. But I did get a little test of my moral fiber and my ability to handle the unexpected about 15 years ago. It was a test I didn’t pass.
My husband and I lived in West Philly, a rough neighborhood of Philadelphia, close to the university. We lived in the heart of a neighborhood that just five years prior to our arrival had made national headlines when police firebombed headquarters of an activist group and destroyed an entire city block. With a combination of student-rented and federally-subsidized apartments, our twinhouse was protected with a ten foot iron fence in back, barred windows, a triple deadlock on the front door, and an alarm system. Upon moving in, we were warned by our landlords not to go walking in the neighborhood after dark. In fact, we had one attempted apartment break-in and several car break-ins during the two years we lived there.
Nevertheless, on a sticky July 4th night my husband and I decided to walk across the bridge over the Schuylkill River to view the city’s fireworks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a fantastic evening of fireworks viewing and people-watching, and we felt relative safety in the mass of West Philly residents walking back across the bridge late at night, filling the street and sidewalks. It felt festive!
That feeling changed suddenly, however, when we heard what sounded like gunshots. Taking our cue from the long-time West Philly residents, we began running towards the closest house, hoping to get as far back into the shadows and away from the street as possible.
We found ourselves racing toward the shelter of the same house as a young family -parents and their two small children. I could feel my heart beating in my ears and was pushing the little children ahead of me, trying not to trip over them.
Finally, all six of us squeezed into a brick corner as far back as we could go, I bent over and put my hands on my knees. Trying to catch my breath. Trying not to throw up. Willing my wobbly knees not to fail me. “Are you OK?” the mother asked me. “You’ve never done this before?” Done this before, are you kidding? I’m from Seattle! The mother, father, and children appeared unphased. Another night in the ‘hood.
This night has bothered me for more than 15 years. The children had to be 5 or 6 years old. Why didn’t I pick one or both of them up and run with them? I was so concerned about my own safety that for those 20 seconds I saw them merely as obstacles in my path. I pushed them forward not to help them get out of the street faster, but so they wouldn’t prevent me from taking any longer than necessary to get out of harm’s way.
One definition of valor, a beautiful-sounding word that is delicious to say and seems to convey so much more than courage or bravery, is:
Strength of mind in regard to danger; that quality which enables a person to encounter danger with firmness
Carl Sandburg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, said:
Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes.
I got an easy lesson. What the neighborhood responded to didn’t turn out to be, in fact, gunshot. Nobody was hurt. I didn’t have it in my first test, but will I demonstrate valor the next time? Will I be the person I want to be? As Carl Sandburg says, I won’t know until I’m tested again.