Cary’s classic column from Apr 20, 2007
Accidents happen. He was inexperienced. But he’s not owning up. In fact he’s sort of acting like a dick!
My longtime boyfriend and I went on a holiday in Colorado with a bunch of others, which included ice-climbing practice. My boyfriend was tied as a safety measure to his friend, attached by a fail-safe machine, which requires that you put your hand away from the apparatus to lock the person in place. The apparatus is foolproof according to physics and has become popular among climbers of all sorts. In any case, when my boyfriend was showing the friend, let’s call him Joe, how the apparatus worked, Joe was joking and looked relatively comfortable. When my boyfriend was climbing on an easy wall, because it is not as high and children learn on it, he came down faster than Joe had expected. Then suddenly I saw my boyfriend falling and soon thereafter he was on the ground, bloody and barely conscious.
Before I left for the hospital with the ambulance, I saw that Joe was in the side, packing up things. I knew that he must have felt a tremendous sense of guilt because we had no idea of the extent of my boyfriend’s injuries. I looked at him in the eye and said that no one blamed him. Accidents happen, even when we don’t want them to. Joe did all the right things at first. He helped us. I was very conscious of not wanting to blame him, because it was a systemic failure at multiple levels. Yes, he held the rope (you can see the burn marks on his hand) and he pulled the machine open when he should have put his hands away (which was why the rope went through). But he was a newbie and newbies need more supervision than what he received. But he also failed to register any discomfort about taking on that role. So it was a systemic failure.
Then three things happened. Before Joe and I were to go visit the boyfriend at the hospital, he confided in me that he did not remember what he did wrong, subtly implying that the machine might have failed. And he talked about how everything else contributed to the accident. He is right, of course, but it seems almost unseemly to shirk responsibility in such a quick fashion when someone’s life was almost taken. Second, Joe never apologized to the boyfriend, even as much as “I am so sorry that I panicked,” creating an opportunity for the boyfriend to say, “I am sorry too, for not providing enough supervision.” Third, Joe sent us a bill for the trip, which included gasoline for the car: We rode back in the ambulance, but he took our things. (Our original intention was to share costs.)
Now I am very angry, not about the accident but about Joe’s refusal to acknowledge his part in the accident. I don’t care about the money, but I am surprised by the ferociousness of my response. I do not want this man in my life, for refusing to acknowledge that something serious happened. He wants to pretend that nothing happened, but something did. Things change when we do not acknowledge our part. The boyfriend is mostly OK. He had a severe concussion and that may cause some unforeseen problems. He has other problems from the accident, but ones that time will most likely heal. However, what is happening here? Am I being a mean person, or is this behavior wrong? I am having a hard time digesting this behavior.
I want to be fair and kind. Yet, I find this behavior unacceptable. I know that we react to accidents in various ways. I also know that Joe is not entirely responsible for what happened. But he is partly responsible. I will not pretend that I am not angry, although I usually am a people-pleasing magnet. They are old school friends. What is the right thing to do here?
Troubled With Ethical Responses
I’m not going to get into trying to resolve the ethical matter, which if examined in detail may be a little complicated. But I will tell you as simply one person to another that I don’t like this guy! He’s not giving you what you need, and he’s not giving me what I need either! I want him to say that while he maybe doesn’t know precisely how his failings contributed to your boyfriend’s injuries, he knows that he contributed and that he feels deeply sorry for his part and takes complete responsibility for his part. I want him not just to say that but to show that, too, by picking up the tab, by taking care of stuff, by making other people’s lives easier, rather than thinking of himself and his own convenience. I want this guy to not send you a bill. Sure, life goes on. But take the high road! I wish he had thought about it and said to himself, They’ve been through a lot, I can afford to let the bill slide.
A guy nearly died here. You want a person, when something like that happens, when he has played a part in it, to be generous and helpful, to be humble and self-effacing. That would mean paying for stuff. That would mean showing up and being there and trying to help out. That would mean not acting like a weasel.
To say he should have been given better training and supervision sounds weaselly. Climbing is a dangerous sport. Whose responsibility is it? It’s his! No matter how much supervision we are given, the final responsibility rests with us; we must accept responsibility for assessing the danger we face and the risks we take. He chose to climb the wall. He had a responsibility for his friend’s well-being. Something went wrong and everyone around him is being gracious in not blaming him outright. The least he could do is show humility and respect. It galls me to think that he would even hint at placing any blame on others, any blame at all.
You are uncertain on what logical or ethical basis you feel this anger. Well, what you feel is what you feel. I think you sense in your heart that he’s being a weasel. He’s not rising to the occasion. He’s not even doing the minimum. We feel it when people aren’t pulling their weight. We feel the extra weight on our backs.
What we love in people is when they do more than the minimum, when they rise to the occasion and shoulder more of the load than they have to. That is when things work best, when every person shoulders more than he or she has to and does more than is necessary. That gives everyone strength in a bad situation.
It is also a practical necessity for everyone to do more than their share because, as a practical matter, “your share” is never enough. There is always more to do than you think. If we all think only of our own share, certain people will always end up doing more. We must all do more than our share.
So when even one person does less, it’s really annoying!
So his behavior sounds selfish and immature. We could let him off the hook and say he’s acting like a dick because of how he was raised, because he’s spoiled and afraid of a lawsuit. We could say that. But we don’t want to.
We like people who own up. We like people who shoulder the load. That’s the kind of behavior that we like.
This guy’s behavior isn’t even close to that.
So what’s the right thing to do? You could try telling him. But something tells me he’s not going to get it. We don’t get this stuff by being told. We get it when experience teaches us, or because discomfort teaches us, or because a desire for genuine understanding leads us to it. We don’t get it because people tell us we’re acting like dicks.
So you can tell him whatever you want. I’d just write him off.
Don’t let him hold your purse. Don’t let him hold your baby.
Don’t fly with him. Don’t drive with him. Don’t even walk with him.
And don’t ever, ever go climbing with him!