THE STORM ARRIVES without warning, battering the cruise ship as bride and groom cling to the rail. Alas! The bride is swept overboard. She calls for her mate to rescue her. In the critical seconds that follow, he ponders: To leap or not to leap? He leaps not…and spends twenty years wracked by guilt.
The scenario comes from a science fiction TV episode from the seventies. Variations can be seen in “Twice in a Lifetime,” where each Wednesday night a lucky soul receives a chance to relive a moral choice.
In real life, we are seldom granted a second chance. Like the tortured groom, we remain haunted by rescues we might have mounted, comforting acts we might have tendered, and split-second choices where we failed to act.
Three such choices have haunted me.
The year was 1975. Four of us students from the University of Chicago were riding a city bus downtown to catch the play Trifles.
A haggard man boarded. He handed the driver a transfer ticket and quietly took a seat.
Suddenly, the driver halted the bus and turned angrily toward the new rider. “Hey, man, what you tryin’ to pull? This ticket’s expired!”
The four of us looked up.
The man answered meekly, “Oh. Sorry.”
“Sorry? That’s 50 cents.”
“Don’t got 50 cents,” mumbled the man.
“You don’t got 50 cents! That’s fine! I'm sick and tired of you deadbeats tryin’ to pass off expired tickets. Now I'm gonna have to pay it for you!”
For blocks, the driver continued his diatribe. My friends and I, mustering all our book learning, stared at the graffiti on the seat ahead.
Ten years later, I would again show myself to be made of the wrong stuff. Driving home from work in Atlanta, I stopped for a disabled car whose radiator was spouting steam. In the car were three young women. “Do you need help?” I asked. “I have some water.”
“No, thanks,” the driver smiled. “Someone has called a tow truck. But by any chance, do you have a jar?”
“It’s all right, it’s all right!” cried a woman in the back.
My foot, it was. The lady in the back had to pee. Now.
It so happened that I carried one of those portable plastic jars designed for her emergency. OK, it was the man’s model; but something told me the damsel in distress wouldn’t mind.
So what did I do? Hoping to spare her embarrassment, I pretended I didn't know of her crisis, and drove on.
You’d think these two lapses taught me to seize the moment. Think again. The next year—1986—I was flying to LA aboard a widebody jetliner. The woman beside me was watching the feature movie, Rocky IV. The film reached the horrifying scene where the giant Russian boxer delivered a series of brutal head blows to Apollo Creed. As Creed lay dead, I sensed a bobbing motion. My seatmate was crying.
Did I hold her hand? Wipe her tear? Offer her a Kleenex? Or mind my own business? One guess.
For much of the twentieth century, the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson was renowned for his timing. In The Decisive Moment (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1952), he shared how he had honed the judgment, reflexes, and will to release the shutter at just the right moment.
Like a photojournalist’s eye, moral reflexes must be honed. My college friends and I could recite Kant’s moral imperative. We were versed in Aristotle and Socrates. We debated lifeboat ethics for sport. Were we guilty of paralysis by analysis? Or bald cowardice? Both. In simpler times, people trusted their instincts and minded the Golden Rule.
That’s not to say quick moral reflexes were ever in fashion. In Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables, a runaway cart pins a man below one of its mighty wheels. “We must help him!” cries Jean Valjean. “Too late. Too heavy,” the townspeople shrug. While they protest, our hero lifts the cart.
Some of us have known men or women like Valjean—pure souls who do the right thing reflexively, without hesitation. My mother’s father was one of them. For him, a person’s dignity was no trifle. Had he been on the Chicago bus, he’d have stridden to the driver, pressed two quarters into his hand, and said, “Here’s your 50 cents; let the man keep his dignity.” Had he been on that Atlanta road, he’d have told the anxious woman, “I carry an emergency jar. Please accept it as my little gift; I’ll pick up another tonight.” Had he been on that jetliner, he’d have clutched the crying woman’s hand.
Our culture belittles unblinking response as a relic from a John Wayne movie. As I penned in college, “All codes consistent, clear, and simply spelled / Are deemed simplistic, jeered, and quickly quelled.” The Golden Rule? Most of us would agree with songwriter Cole Porter that “It ain’t necessarily so.” Time was, doing the right thing was a simple call; today, it’s a complex calculus. Given but a moment to act, no wonder we miss it; who has time to do the math?
For the Jean Valjeans of the world, decisive moments need no math. The rest of us must park our muddled heads and learn to think with our hearts. And even more: We must plan. Yes, plan. Let us ask, “What would I do if…?” Play Scruples, not Solitaire. Read Miss Manners as we sip our morning coffee. Study the deeds of the saintly, not the trivial pursuits of celebrities. As we drive, note the good Samaritans among us. Ten to one, they’re not cruising in the center lane.
Speaking of cruising: What became of our tortured groom from the cruise ship? In his story, he was returned to that fateful night. This time, he leaped into the sea…and drowned with his bride, redeemed.
What of our stories? On the final page, will we be called to account for moments when we failed to act? Or is swift action asked only of our Jean Valjeans? You decide.
©1999 Paul Franklin Stregevsky