How we react to unfortunate events – from the mildly unsavory to the greatly tragic – says a lot about our character. And our decision-making process in the face of chaos and disaster – particularly our ability to react with re-prioritization – has an invaluable influence over our eventual happiness.
I once read an advice column tackling the feeling of remorse.
A woman had written in to say that she hit a dog with her car just a few weeks earlier. And then left it.
“I was on my way to an interview,” she said, likely hoping that readers would relate to this rationale, accept it as justification, and commiserate with her.
I didn’t. I was completely taken aback.
It didn’t help when she added that she saw the dog “curled up against a building” when she drove by the next day.
Curled up against a building.
That information is an important distinction: it means that the dog did not die instantly, as this woman may have initially thought. It died slowly. It died in a process drawn out long enough for the animal to move over to a wall and curl up against it.
This realization startled me.
And it obviously startled her too.
“Please help me,” she wrote. “I feel so guilty.”
The advice columnist’s suggestion? “Maybe you could volunteer at a dog shelter to feel better.”
(In short: “this is easily resolved. And it is okay.”)
I felt disheartened by this; disappointed that we are capable of making regretful decisions and then, in our reluctance to accept responsibility for our actions, instead write to an advice columnist in an obvious plea for forgiveness, yearning for someone to tell us, “hey, sweetie. It could’ve happened to anyone. It’s okay.”
It’s not okay.
This woman will very likely harbor this guilt, somewhere, for the rest of her life. And I think that to suggest that “it is okay” does not solve the larger problem at hand, which is tragically imbalanced priorities.
(I wrote to the magazine’s advice columnist telling her so. Not surprisingly, I never heard back.)
More than a year later, I read Rachel Carson’s biography.
It described a woman whose strong love of the natural world led her to a career in marine biology, in which she eventually became one of the most respected scientists in the field.
Carson spent the middle of her career as the editor in chief of all USFWS industry publications. She approached her work with tremendous seriousness and was apparently a tyrant in the office, accepting no excuses and nothing short of excellence from her team. She was detail-oriented, professional and always punctual.
On one occasion, however, she came in to the office late – something that never happened for a woman who ruled it with an iron fist. And when she walked in, her blouse was covered in dried blood.
Carson, it turned out, had seen a dog, recently hit, on the side of the road that morning. Despite being on a tight schedule and headed into the office, she pulled her car over and picked the animal up, taking it the nearest vet and paying for its treatment.
When she was later asked about it, she explained, straightforwardly: “I always abide by Thoreau’s law: rescue the drowning and tie your shoe-strings.’”
Carson later went on to write Silent Spring, the book that spurred the creation of the EPA and ended the use of highly-toxic DDT as a pesticide in the US. Obviously, her work was immensely influential. But it probably goes without saying that she too was likely a woman who still took her interviews seriously. And yet she still saw to stopping.
We often get so caught up in our daily routines and our immediate priorities, we begin to foster a distorted sense of what’s important and, worse, begin to believe that regretful decisions are somehow “okay.”
The first woman wanted to feel reassured that other people would’ve made the same decision.
She second woman lived her life believing we shouldn’t.
The first woman looked back on her decision with guilt and remorse. The second? With a level head and clear conscience.
Which are you? How do you want to look back on your choices?
I will always be an advocate of fostering our priorities in any order that suits us – we can put our careers before our health, our health before our families… our quest for knowledge over our need for creativity – but there should always be room, at the very top of our priorities, to – at a moment’s notice – drop everything to help those in immediate need, in front of us.
This quick, automatic re-prioritization doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should. We get caught up in our daily lives and become distracted with the energy we devote to accomplishing whatever tasks it is that we’ve set ourselves to. Ambition is admirable. But only if we retain our human capacity for compassion when its most critical.