But what about really awful events? A lot of people can get on board with taking responsibility for work-related problems and maybe watching too much TV when they should really be playing with their kids or being productive. But when it comes to horrible tragedies, they pull the emergency cord on the responsibility train and get off when it stops. Some things just feel too painful for them to own up to.
But think about it: the intensity of the event doesn’t change the underlying truth. If you get robbed, say, you’re obviously not at fault for being robbed. No one would ever choose to go through that. But as with the baby on your doorstep, you are immediately thrust into responsibility for a life-and-death situation. Do you fight back? Do you panic? Do you freeze up? Do you tell the police? Do you try to forget it and pretend it never happened? These are all choices and reactions you’re responsible for making or rejecting. You didn’t choose the robbery, but it’s still your responsibility to manage the emotional and psychological (and legal) fallout of the experience.
In 2008, the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley, a remote part of northeastern Pakistan. They quickly implemented their Muslim extremist agenda. No television. No films. No women outside the house without a male escort. No girls attending school.
By 2009, an eleven-year-old Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai had begun to speak out against the school ban. She continued to attend her local school, risking both her and her father’s lives; she also attended conferences in nearby cities. She wrote online, “How dare the Taliban take away my right for education?”
In 2012, at the age of fourteen, she was shot in the face as she rode the bus home from school one day. A masked Taliban soldier armed with a rifle boarded the bus and asked, “Who is Malala? Tell me, or I will shoot everyone here.” Malala identified herself (an amazing choice in and of itself), and the man shot her in the head in front of all the other passengers.
Malala went into a coma and almost died. The Taliban stated publicly that if she somehow survived the attempt, they would kill both her and her father.
Today, Malala is still alive. She still speaks out against violence and oppression toward women in Muslim countries, now as a best-selling author. In 2014 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. It would seem that being shot in the face only gave her a larger audience and more courage than before. It would have been easy for her to lie down and say, “I can’t do anything,” or “I have no choice.” That, ironically, would still have been her choice. But she chose the opposite.
A few years ago, I had written about some of the ideas in this chapter on my blog, and a man left a comment. He said that I was shallow and superficial, adding that I had no real understanding of life’s problems or human responsibility. He said that his son had recently died in a car accident. He accused me of not knowing what true pain was and said that I was an asshole for suggesting that he himself was responsible for the pain he felt over his son’s death.
This man had obviously suffered pain much greater than most people ever have to confront in their lives. He didn’t choose for his son to die, nor was it his fault that his son died. The responsibility for coping with that loss was given to him even though it was clearly and understandably unwanted. But despite all that, he was still responsible for his own emotions, beliefs, and actions. How he reacted to his son’s death was his own choice. Pain of one sort or another is inevitable for all of us, but we get to choose what it means to and for us. Even in claiming that he had no choice in the matter and simply wanted his son back, he was making a choice—one of many ways he could have chosen to use that pain.
Of course, I didn’t say any of this to him. I was too busy being horrified and thinking that yes, perhaps I was way in over my head and had no idea what the fuck I was talking about. That’s a hazard that comes with my line of work. A problem that I chose. And a problem that I was responsible for dealing with.
At first, I felt awful. But then, after a few minutes, I began to get angry. His objections had little to do with what I was actually saying, I told myself. And what the hell? Just because I don’t have a kid who died doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced terrible pain myself.
But then I actually applied my own advice. I chose my problem. I could get mad at this man and argue with him, try to “outpain” him with my own pain, which would just make us both look stupid and insensitive. Or I could choose a better problem, working on practicing patience, understanding my readers better, and keeping that man in mind every time I wrote about pain and trauma from then on. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.
I replied simply that I was sorry for his loss and left it at that. What else can you say?