“There are three types of men in the world. One type learns from books. One type learns from observations. And one type just has to urinate on the electric fence himself.” – Carl Barney
Let me tell you about one of the dilemmas I have often faced as a writer who focuses on self-defense issues. It’s impossible to write realistically about these topics without discussing other people’s tragedies. I hate that. I would much rather not go there. People who have been through a tough or even life-changing situation should not have to deal with their private horrors being paraded on the six o’clock news. They should not have to deal with hordes of online busybodies telling them what they “should have” done during the worst and most confusing moments of their lives. That’s unkind and almost inhuman.
On the other hand, one of life’s most important truths is this: smart people learn from the things other people do. When someone does something particularly well, we look up to them and want to learn from them. They naturally become mentors and role models for others. Successful business people write best-selling books about how they did it. Winning athletes become coaches or start foundations designed to help young people build the same set of skills and attitudes that made them successful. These projects work well because everyone wants to learn from the experiences of a winner.
The smartest of the smart people don’t just learn from winners, though. They learn from everyone. They learn from people who make good choices and from people who make bad ones. They learn from quirky, ridiculous situations and from ugly, awful ones. They pay attention to everything that happens around them, and they learn from it all.
I have often heard survivors say something like, “Well, if anyone can learn anything from what I went through, that would make everything worthwhile.” It’s a valid thought and a noble one. But not all survivors feel the same way. It’s equally common for them to think, “Even if a million people heard about this, that would not erase the pain that my family and I have been through. I wish they would just leave us alone!” That, too, is a valid way to feel, and equally deserving of respect.
So we must deal with these conflicting ideas. 1) Smart people learn from the things other people have experienced, and 2) not all survivors appreciate having their private lives dragged into the public view.
Let me make it more personal here. As an empathetic person, I never want to become so callous that I forget the real people involved in a frightening, tragic, upsetting, or terrifying event. But my students still need to hear real, personal and specific examples of what crime looks like.
When I write about an event that’s been in the news, I do my best to understand what really happened. If the police reports are available, I read them. When the district attorney issues a statement, I read the statement in full — not just trusting some journalist’s summary of it. I owe it to the survivors to get their stories as right as I can. Even at that, when I refer to someone else’s tragedy, I often leave out the names of the intended victims and perpetrators, so that I can help others learn from their experiences while still leaving them with as much privacy as I reasonably can.
Safety demands that we keep our self-defense methods fully grounded in the realities of crime. We need to understand how crime ordinarily develops. We need to understand the techniques criminals use to select and distract their victims. We need to see real-life examples of both successful and unsuccessful strategies for dealing with dangerous situations. If I, and people like me, do not pass these lessons along, no one will learn the lessons the victims paid for with their blood.
For me, that’s the bottom line. Because the only thing worse than a tragedy, is a tragedy that nobody learned anything from.