One Fingertip Away

fingertipsInside each of us is the instinct to flee from frightening events. As children we may attempt to fake an illness to avoid an unpleasant situation. As adults we may take a mental health day when our jobs begin to overwhelm. Sometimes our lives become so stressful or unhappy that we dream of running away. Few of us ever choose the easy way out of a sticky situation but such behavior is not unheard of.

When I was in college I landed an internship at one of the local elementary schools. I had a fancy title of some sort but in essence I was a teachers’ aide. I spent my days doing tasks that the real educators did not have enough time to accomplish. Only once in a blue moon did a teacher realize that I might enjoy working with students. Most of the time I was in the copy room running off worksheets and tests. That’s where I met a young woman who was a bonafide teachers’ aide who worked full time at the school and would likely still be there long after I had returned to the university to study. She was quite sweet but undeniably adrift. Her job was unfulfilling, low paying and at times demeaning. Sadly she saw no way out of her dilemma. She needed the income and saw no other possibilities on the horizon. In her mind she was stuck in a deep rut from which there was never going to be a means of escape. Her unhappiness enveloped her so that she was unable to even consider any of the ideas that I suggested as we ran the mimeograph machine, collated and stapled.

One morning she was nowhere to be found as I made my rounds to determine what kind of work was in store for me. Everyone was asking if I had seen her. I assumed that she was caught in traffic or perhaps she was so sick that she was unable to call the school to explain her absence. By mid-morning rumors were spreading through the school. The secretary had called the young woman’s home and her family insisted that she had left for work at the same time that she always did. We were all worried and wondering what might have happened. It was not until the next day that we learned the shocking truth.

It seems that the girl had indeed intended to go to work just as she always had. The mere thought of repeating the dull and never ending tasks made her stomach churn but she was a dutiful person. As she sat in the wall to wall traffic she just happened to glance at the side of the road where a sign noted the distance from that spot to Dallas. At that very moment something primal overcame her usually rational thinking. She knew in her heart that she could not face her job that day. On an impulse she decided to drive to Dallas instead. She went past the exit for the school and just kept traveling north until she saw the skyscrapers of Big D. She had no plan, no idea of what she intended to do next. She only knew that there was no way that she could go back to the life that she had been living and stay sane. She apologized to the principal and tendered her resignation effective immediately.

All of us were stunned by her actions. I wasn’t sure whether I thought that she was crazy or the bravest person that I had ever known. I understood that she had flaunted protocols and demonstrated a profound lack of responsibility, and maybe even maturity, but I somehow admired her willingness to excise the pain she had been experiencing in one fell swoop. Over the years whenever I found myself in situations that were overwhelming I thought of her and felt the temptation to emulate her actions. I wondered how freeing it must have felt to shoot the bird at obligations and fly away, if only for a day. Of course I never followed through on such thoughts because ultimately it was not in my nature. Still there was something fascinating about the idea of simply walking away from conflicts.

A few days ago I watched an ESPN 30 for 30 film about the incredible University of Houston Phi Slamma Jamma basketball team that made history in the early nineteen eighties. The movie was a story within a story as it traced the meteoric rise of one of the greatest teams in the history of college sports and their tragic inability to grab the ultimate prize of a national championship. In one of the most famous games of all time Houston was literally one fingertip and mere seconds away from the title when a player named Bennie Anders just missed his shot.

Things fell apart for the team and for Bennie after that. The glory days were gone as key players left for the NBA. Bennie who was younger stayed on but seemed to be in continual conflict with his coaches and his teammates. He ultimately became embroiled in an altercation with one of them, went to his car, and came back with a loaded gun. He was arrested and expelled from the university. After that he simply seemed to disappear. A young man who had once been thought to have enough talent to earn a place in the NBA was nowhere to be found. Thirty years later his former teammates located him living an ordinary life in Michigan. Bennie insisted that he was happy because he was free.

I am a promise keeper. Once I commit to a job, an event, a relationship I believe in going all the way. I don’t like the idea of letting other people down but I’m not so ready to fault those who understand that they must sever ties quickly and without warning or be eternally trapped. Sometimes I believe that we really do have to flee certain situations when they break us into a million little pieces. We may need a bit of time away from the fury or we may realize that we can never turn back again. I have not been the victim of abuse nor have I ever felt as though I was going to lose my mind but there are those who quite legitimately realize that they are on the verge of disaster and that their only recourse is to run away from something terrifying.

Those of us witnessing such behavior may be stunned but until we know all of the circumstances it is not up to us to judge. The beautiful thing about the Bernie Anders story is that the only question his old friends asked when they found him was whether or not he was happy. They embraced him just as he was and he felt their love, commenting on the powerful impact that it had on him. He was touched by their concern and the fact that they had never forgotten him. They were heroes but so was he.

We have basic human instincts locked inside our DNA designed to protect us from harm. They signal our brains when we are in danger. All too often we ignore the signs until it is too late or we have to make such dramatic moves that they seem to be extreme. We fail to listen for the tiny voices that tell us when our situation is not what it should be. We hide our fears and fail to reach out for the help that almost always is available. We think that we are alone when our emotions overcome us. We falsely believe that our faltering indicates that we are weak when admitting our concerns is actually the bravest thing that we might do.

Life can be unbelievably cruel at times. We make decisions over and over again as we meet the challenges that befall us. We can take the exit to work or keep heading down the highway. We can miss our shot at fame and fortune or choose to lead a quiet life on our own terms. Whatever we decide to do, it should feel good. When it doesn’t we are likely on the wrong track. Life is never about a single game. It is the sum of all that we do. We always have another chance to make the dunk or just walk away.