One of the things I was taught when I attended a first aid class was to make sure, before I attempted to help anyone, that it was safe for me to do so. To make sure that I was not putting myself in danger by helping a person in distress—whether from an environmental factor like a fire, flood or toxic gas, or even from the person I was trying to help. The gist being: you can’t help someone if you get into trouble—that just makes more trouble for the EMTs when they show up.
It was not an unfamiliar concept to me. At the time, I’d been working and playing in and on and around rivers for many years, and the number one rule of helping a drowning person is: don’t go in after them. Throw them a flotation device, or a rope, but then only if there’s a safe place for you to stand.) Because you don’t want to be drowning number two—or even the person who drowned getting the other person out.
So the idea that you had to make sure of your own safety before providing aid to someone else made perfect sense.
Changing gears for a moment. A while back I had a visit from a friend. Said friend was going through some tough times, and the stress from this was sending them into periodic bouts of depression and anxiety. In the time they were staying with me I tried to render such care as I was able in the form of getting them outside, providing entertaining distractions, cooking them tasty and nourishing food, and giving as much practical advice as I was able.
But before I did any of that, I made sure of two things: (1) that every day I got an appreciable amount of exercise, and (2) I got a similar amount of writing done. These essentials were entirely for my own benefit, and though it meant leaving my friend alone at times when I’d rather have not, I recognized that these were non-negotiable levels of care for myself. Taking care of my own baseline needs first was what allowed me to devote the rest of my time and energy to helping my friend, without developing any resentment which would have inevitably poisoned our time together and ruined the visit. And because I was able to be so generous with them, they were better able to deal with their own problems, which made the visit more enjoyable for both of us.
What I was doing in this instance was an emotional version of making sure the scene was safe before providing aid. By putting my own basic needs first I was performing the emotional equivalent of making sure the road was clear before running into the middle of it to save a lost toddler.
Yet as simple and sensible a concept as this is, it can be surprisingly difficult to practice. As a species we are inclined to help people we perceive to be in trouble. As a society we are encouraged (through the glorification of heroes, both real and fictional) to provide this help at any cost.
I live in a town built around a river. There are annual drownings. More often than not, they come in pairs—or more—because someone jumped in to try to save their son, their brother, or their dog. This happens even when the first victim is in a torrent of raging whitewater—something that’s obviously dangerous.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has recognized this problem and offers a course of training, through their Everyone Goes Home program, designed to help firefighters recognize when a situation has become unacceptably dangerous, and how to protect themselves when this happens. It is called Courage To Be Safe, and highlights the courage it takes to not run into a burning building when doing so would jeopardize your life or the lives of your colleagues.
Let me boil that down for you: our desire as a species and a society to save other people is so strong that we have had to come up with a provocative slogan to help people resist the urge to walk into a fire.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise how frequently people get themselves into trouble trying to render other kinds of aid when it is not safe for them to do so. I’ve seen people over-extend themselves trying to help people who are, sometimes through no fault of their own, emotional or financial black holes. One could pour loving care and money into these people forever, and they would not get better. All that happens is the caregiver winds up emotionally destroyed or financially compromised, or both.
Con artists take advantage of this desire to help as well. By presenting themselves as people in need they stir up sympathy and soften their marks. Stalkers and creeps take blatant advantage of people—particularly female people—and their desire not to cause offense and to tolerate inappropriate behavior. Listening to stories of women who were harassed in public, when they are asked why they didn’t speak up, one often hears a refrain of “I didn’t want to embarrass him!”
And you can sneer, if you want. Or point out that he was already making them far more uncomfortable, and was taking advantage of their politeness to behave outrageously. But remember: immediate, physical danger is the easiest to react to. If our natural senses of self-protection can be so easily overturned in the face of roaring whitewater, or a burning building, then we really cannot fault people who allow their judgment to be compromised by much subtler dangers—even if, in the long run, they can turn out to be just as deadly.
Which is why I think it’s worth it for everyone to take a first aid class. Not only will you learn useful skills with which to functionally help someone, you’ll absorb the basic principle that you should protect yourself, which can then be applied to all manner of situations.
It is unlikely for the vast majority of us that we will have to resuscitate anyone, or treat a bullet wound in the field. But it is very likely—almost assured—that at some point in our lives we will be put in the position of wanting to render financial or emotional aid that would put us in danger. At that point it is imperative that we remember that our safety comes first, and no matter what outside pressures are on us, our safety and well-being are paramount: since only from a place of security and strength can we truly help someone. Anything else is just jumping into a raging river to save a person who might smother and drown you, instead. At best, we’re making things more difficult for everyone else, since there are now two people in trouble. At worst, we’re getting ourselves killed.
So don’t jump in. Find a good, safe, solid place to anchor yourself, and throw a rope.
And if you can’t do that, then you can’t help them. Which happens sometimes. And it will be hard to walk away. That’s okay; that’s good. That’s why they call it Courage To Be Safe. But by not putting yourself in danger you are already saving someone: you are saving yourself.
And for all you know, saving yourself today might mean you’re there, in a safe position of strength, to save someone else tomorrow.