I thought I was smart, I thought I was right. I thought it better not to fight. I thought there was a virtue in always being cool.

Most of you who know me don’t necessarily equate “backing down” or being timid to my attributes, for better or worse. And, for better or worse, I’ve been happy to oblige this assumptions about who I am, about my character. Although being hard-headed and confrontational aren’t always the first two qualities you list in what you hope for in a potential friend, I’ve been proud to be known as someone too loudmouthed to step down from what she believes.

But the past month has been challenging this and making me question myself and whether or not I’m being smart and exhibiting proper self restrain, or if I’m becoming spineless.

The first incident happened in Philly after we watched the Rocky-thon. The night had gone on with no problems and we steered clear of the morons who drank their way through all three films. After a pleasant evening, we were just about to head home when we got tangled up with one of the drunken douchebags. Long story short, there were 2 guys: one who drunkenly stumbled down to the MC and grabbed the mike to give a very eloquent Philly-style slurred shout out. As we joked among ourselves about his speech, we were apparently overhead by his cousin (who we had no idea knew him when we passed by). The guy started yelling after us and initially we ignored him. As he persisted, I finally just yelled nonsense back and basically made a loud yelling noise to mimic his bellowing.

To defend his and his cousin’s honor, he grabbed his cousin (who had stumbled halfway up the art museum steps, pumping his fists) and then chased us down to our car. At this point, 3 of the 4 of us were already in the car, Donnie the only one out. Instead of getting out of the car, I yelled for Donnie to get inside, and he approached the guys to try to diffuse the situation. After a couple minutes, he calmed the guys down (the cousin actually seemed to be much cooler than his douchebag defender and didn’t seem to be wanting a fight) and we drove off with the one guy yelling something about how that’s what we get for coming from NY (apparently D’s Yankees’ hat threw him off…).

In the days since then, I replayed this scene in my head over and over. I have prided myself on the story of when I stood up to the guys who came after me and my friends in a parking lot when I was in college. That story has become a defining tale of who I am. Sara: fighter of assholes.  But suddenly that crazy, slightly heroic persona from 6 years ago seemed to have disappeared: this time, the heroine… stayed in the car? I did not get out and stand by my husband. I didn’t punch the motherfucker who deserved it. I sat there and yelled for Donnie to get in the car and stared at one of the assholes who stared us down as we drove away, my heart pounding in my throat.

It wasn’t that these guys were especially big or frightening–they weren’t, but they looked like scumbags and I was afraid they had weapons. So I sat in the car and Donnie dealt with them alone. This bothers me for a lot of reasons. The first being what if something happened to Donnie? What if the guy was crazy and went after him and I was just sitting there, leaving my husband completely vulnerable? What does that say about me? What kind of message does that send to D? Beyond that, it pisses me off that these guys got to walk away thinking their dicks were 5 inches bigger because they were able to bully us into submission.

After telling this story to a friend, who commented that he probably would have fought them, he noted, “those are the kind of guys who are the easiest to fight. They seem like they’re hot shit, but they’ll back down.”

I agree with this, but something made me too scared to challenge it– “but what if they had a gun?” It’s a completely logical and reasonable question/fear, but it does not make me feel any less shitty for not stepping up to these assholes.  I thought I’d feel good about this choice, that once my adrenaline stopped pumping, I’d realize I made the right choice, the smart one, but I haven’t yet. Not at all. Truth be told, I’m still struggling to determine whether my decision was a sign of maturity or cowardice.

Is it better to “be the better person” and walk away? Does walking away make me a better person? I’m having a hard time understanding if the feeling this situation has brought on is simply stinging pride or if it’s something much deeper… am I not as strong as I thought I was? Of course I’ve pep talked myself in the mirror about it a hundred times already, coming up with the numerous ways in which I would have handled the situation today–how I would get them to back down (standing in front of Donnie, screaming belligerently, hoping that my crazy would scare them off; lying and saying I was pregnant; grabbing the beach chair in my truck and beating them with it… these are just a few of the scenarios that have played in my mind…).

I’ve replayed that night over and over again in my head, thinking of the things I would do if the chance arose again, but although that chance will never happen again, I have already had 2 additional opportunities to stand up for myself/for others that I feel like I’ve failed.

One was yesterday. I had spent the whole day in Philly, wandering around, enjoying a beautiful Sunday. Everything had gone so well, and I was on the final leg of my journey, 5 minutes from the ferry that would take me back to Camden. I decided to walk over the Penn’s Landing bridge where I saw a man, sitting next to a tall stand with a lop rabbit on top. The rabbit looked a little dirty, and I’d imagine was probably terrified to sitting so far from the ground with very little supporting it. I stopped dead in my tracks, trying to evaluate the situation.

I asked the man if the rabbit was for sale and he laughed and said no, that he was to use for magic tricks. I stood for a moment longer, wondering what I could do to save him from this fate, but I couldn’t think of anything. I only had $15 cash on me and was sure there would be no way to convince this guy to give me the rabbit for that much. My heart started pounding, and I stood there a few more moments, trying to weigh my options. Instead of arguing further, I walked away and tried to console myself about the situation, and rationalize why it was impossible to help every animal I come in contact with and convince myself that this bunny was not as bad off as I thought. I kicked myself the whole ride home, thinking I could have offered to ATM out more money if he’d give me the rabbit, to come up with a story as to how that bunny reminded of the one I grew up with and that I would pay top dollar. But how would I know he would just go out and buy another one? At least you were able to help -that- one…

The second event happened today at Barnes and Noble. I was enjoying having the day off to sit in the cafe and be one of the people I used to hate, sipping on my spiced cider, looking up information on Berlin and recipes for this week’s dinner. When D got off work, he joined me and we sat for awhile longer, browsing through books and surfing the web.

And then, all of a sudden, a group of high school-aged boys came tearing through and landed right in the book aisle across from us: the Gay & Lesbian section. At first they snickered at titles, but then they began to tear through books, looking for photos to post on Facebook. At this point, I got up. I walked through them and said, “excuse me, I need something from here, actually, right where you’re standing.”

This sent half of them running, but the other half, trying to show they did not waver under pressure, continued to stand there, pretending like they had some sort of vested interest in the section beyond mocking it.

“It’s not right to make fun of this stuff, guys,” the one boy mockingly said to his buddy before they finally let the rest of their friends drag them off to another section of the store.

I could have and should have said more. Sure, I got them to leave the area, but what does that matter? I still let them get away with being little bigots who think it’s OK to sit in front of a group of people (the cafe was packed and a good portion had watched/heard the boys) and openly mock homosexuality. I should have said something really fucking fierce and clever, or maybe just pulled an old lady card and called over a manager to escort them out. I should have done a lot of things, but I didn’t… and this is becoming par for the course.

I don’t want to be some crazy extremist, punching dudes at the slightest hint of confrontation and stealing animals from the hands of seemingly seedy owners, but what are the limits? What is “right” and what is “wrong”? I think that the moral and social compasses are skewed so differently: it would be impolite to cause a scene in a public place, but does that matter if you’re stopping a group of teenage assholes from causing a scene? Should I have fought for that rabbit, refusing to leave until I was able to take him home? How should I have handled myself in these situations? What is the proper solution? How do I figure that out?

4 thoughts on “I thought I was smart, I thought I was right. I thought it better not to fight. I thought there was a virtue in always being cool.

  1. I think you have to strike a balance between standing up and going overboard. And I think you’re maybe trying to get to that point from where you were more comfortable previously making a bit of a bigger scene. And I don’t think making a bigger scene is necessarily a bad thing, but you have to kind of evaluate how much your big scene is really going to make a difference and fine tune it according to that. Because there’s no use in spending all your energy trying to sort other people out. Some people just won’t change, no matter what.

    But you CAN make a difference by drawing attention to unacceptable shit in public, like with the teenage douchebags. they may not change, and definitely not right away, they’re teenage boys after all, but public shame never hurts in maybe making one or two of them think a little harder about what they’re doing. Even if you don’t see that effect outwardly, I bet a few of them were only there because their friends were, you know? And you can make a difference sometimes by just making information available. Like with the bunny. Who knows? Maybe that guy doesn’t know that much about keeping rabbits as pets (my guess is this is probably the case). You always say you didn’t when you started. Maybe he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. Maybe he never WILL think he is, but it can’t hurt to try to talk to him about taking care of his bunny, and maybe pointing out that hey, maybe your rabbit doesn’t LIKE being up on that platform. Maybe he’s a little scared and you should take notice of that.

    Things that have the potential to turn violent are always tricky, so I think that’s more of an instinct situation than anything. I know I always get really mad at Scott when he reacts a little too much to something in public that I think he should just let go, because he’s not thinking of, oh, what if that dude gets out of his car and punches you, you know? We don’t have much of a gun issue here, but there is a lot of knife crime and just drunken assholes starting fights, so I always think it’s better to try to avoid those situations. I’d rather be safe and pissed off at people for being asses than proving a point and ending up in the hospital.

    In any case, you have to pick your battles. And not be too hard on yourself about the ones you let go. The fact that you even think about it at all is better than most people, so give yourself some credit.

  2. I agree with a lot of what Kate said, especially the last paragraph. Don’t be too hard on yourself either – I mean, you’re not an irresponsible 20 year old anymore, walking your drunk friend across the quad in sleepy Chestertown 🙂 Back then you might’ve been a badass, but now you run the risk of just being an ass by stooping to their level to perpetuate a fight. There’s nothing wrong with educating people (rabbit man, douchey dudes at b&n), but I think being able to walk away from a bad situation that doesn’t deserve your time and energy (douchey dudes in Philly) shows maturity more than anything else. Donnie probably should’ve just let it go and gotten in the car as it is. It’s just not worth it, particularly given the very real possibility, as you mentioned, that things could escalate into a gun/knife fight – and then would it even be worth it just to have had the last word? Probably not.

  3. A few days ago I posted a long one and lost it and got mad and threw my computer across the room. I’ll do the short version this time: It all comes down to the result, it seems to me. What do you want to get accomplished? The satisfacion you get from standing up to someone isn’t as satisfying if it doesn’t accomplish a real goal. Standing up to the guys in Philly. Why? To show you could? Donnie talked them down — that was good. But, to me, driving away would have been just as good. Who cares? Who the heck were they? The evaluation you give of them shows me you shouldn’t really care whqat they think of you after all. The rabbit, you could have saved, probably by paying an exhorbitant price – money the magician would have used to buy two more. So leaving that one and going on to do your For Bunny’s Sake work is a valid choice. Cold logic says that the needs of the many bunnies outweigh the needs of the one bunny. Some things are worth fighting for but which of these was? To the kids in the bookstore, you would have been a “dork”, no matter what you did. There are other ways to fight homophobia that don’t involve your ruining you evening (any further)for kids who are just going to close off to you out of defensiveness no matter what. I say don’t ever let guilt or pride burden you — or cause you to get hurt — unless the sacrifice (or the broken hand?) are worth it. In short, you have nothing to be ashamed of and should take pride in your ideals and embrace them with logic over emotion . . .

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