ImageIn a conference room, educators, administrators, and parents meet at a table. Suddenly, in the midst of their discussion, gunfire erupts nearby. At the moment of recognition, some reflexively dive for cover, while others spring from their seats and head toward danger.

I can’t shake this image.

What makes some people instinctively jump into the fray, even in the face of potential harm? I’d be willing to bet that at the moment of action, not a single person in that room thought about which path she would take. No one weighed the options. No one considered the risks. No one considered what was at stake. In that split second, each person simply reacted. For the first moment, gut instinct was the only driving force.

Please don’t misunderstand; I don’t believe one action was better than another in this case. The people who put themselves in harm’s way died, but they were heroes who tried to save others. The people who sought refuge rejoined relieved and grateful families, sparing them the searing pain of personal loss.  You can’t separate wins from losses in such a situation.

What I’m trying to understand are the reasons people react in such divergent ways.

I’m becoming convinced that in crisis situations, people’s actions are very often the reflexive culmination of their life experiences. Every day is preparation for the next; no action is wasted or forgotten by the psyche. Each one becomes a stone in a person’s foundation. Each one becomes a part of who we are.

If that’s the case, everything I do makes a difference in who I am. When it comes to my moment of truth, I want my foundation to be strong, regardless of whether I face danger or seek shelter.

This changes how I look at everything.

To the women who lost their lives confronting a dangerous man, thank you. Your willingness to stand between others and danger demonstrated courage and selflessness in a way none of us can fathom.

To the people who took refuge, thank you, too. Fewer families will be torn apart by the grief of losing a parent, child, spouse, sibling, or friend. Each spared life is a blessing to all of us; there is enough suffering in the world.