I have a new tattoo. It’s still healing on my arm and the sting from the needle is fresh on my mind. It’s a picture of a hand reaching out of the water. It’s blue and flexed and obvious that it is the hand of a man struggling and drowning beneath the surface of the waves. It’s the kind of moment that needs to be remembered. That moment when life is seconds away from being gone forever.
And there is a story behind it that I’m not sure how to tell anymore. Not because the story has changed, but because if feels like I simply need to tell it differently now.
Classes are about to start for the new semester at my university. A university that is in a financial crisis and has a faculty that is disenchanted with its leadership. A university weathering the Covid-19 pandemic and watching student enrollment drop by double digit percentages. Administrative types do what administrative types do in these situations. Go to the numbers, focus on assessment, try to figure out how to save money, retain students and otherwise stop the hemorrhaging. In other words, they have meetings.
This is isn’t surprising. Nor does it seem to be helpful. It’s institutional thinking and not first principles thinking. The university feels like a microcosm of the nation.
I didn’t make any connection with the tattoo to the university or nation until this week when the U.S. Capitol was overrun by a mob of Trump supporters trying to keep Joe Biden from becoming the next President of the United States. But, now I do. Part of that connection is simply to be bluntly honest with myself.
First principle thinking essentially means breaking down a problem into its most basic and simplest forms. Then work to solve the problems of the basic forms and use those solutions to work up to the larger problems. You go back to the beginning. For me that has meant largely ignoring the larger university, administrators and other faculty who are committed to administrative/corporate thinking. For me it’s meant looking curiously and deeply at realities of the world and asking myself a fundamental question.
What is the most important thing that I can teach right now? That’s the first principle of a professor.
And then I thought of the drowning man.
What is the most important thing that I can teach right now?
On Christmas Eve, Paula and I were sitting on the boat watching a movie on Netflix and wasting away the afternoon when we heard our boat neighbor, Mike banging on our boat and yelling for help. I ran out and he told me he saw a man fall in the water who was struggling. I immediately dropped my dinghy in the water from the davits and started unfastening the straps to try and get to him. While I was doing that I could hear Mike yelling at someone else on the seawall trying to get her to help. My boat was blocking my view from where the man had fallen into the water. I know I had tunnel vision because in that moment everything felt like it was moving in slow motion. I didn’t feel panicked or rushed, I just felt the need to get to the guy as quickly and safely as I could. Just before I started the motor I heard Mike say, “Oh no, now she’s in the water too!”
The amount of time that had elapsed from the first moment I heard Mike to me clearing the dock and seeing the two people in the water was maybe three minutes.
Mostly I saw the woman. I could see her struggling with a body that wasn’t struggling back. As I try to think back on the moment it feels more like a faded and damaged photo that make it hard to see the details. I remember her yelling for help and me answering that I was coming. I remember her telling me the man was dead. I remember yelling to Paula to call 911. I remember forcing myself to keep the throttle of the boat under control. She had flipped him over so his face was out of the water. After that the photograph mostly goes blurry.
What I do know is that she got out of the water and we pulled the guy into the boat with amazing ease. I grabbed his shirt by the shoulders and she grabbed his legs. I only know this because other people told me. I remember her standing on the wall and me throwing her the bow line of the boat. I remember looking down by my feet at the cold blue face of a dead man staring blankly at the sky.
That’s when I heard her tell me that she was a nurse and to turn his head to the side and start CPR. It was the voice of someone who was in charge. I did as she said and started chest compressions and she told me that I needed to do them faster. Then she started trying to pull the dinghy down the wall toward the shore and that’s when things started getting clearer. It was low tide and the exposed oysters and barnacles will cut an inflatable boat like a knife and about then my brain started working again. This was all wrong. We were both doing the wrong jobs. I told her to get in the boat and take over CPR because if she kept dragging us down the wall she’d sink the boat and I could get us there faster. I grabbed her hand and she stepped in and took over. I started the motor up and turned toward the dock where the paramedics would meet us and she started chest compressions. I remember feeling like my morning-long CPR training didn’t fully prepare me for this moment as the the man’s head rocked back and forth against my foot.
The nurse was young and pissed off. What I originally thought was panic was really anger. As we made our way to the dock her chest compressions seemed furiously fast when everything else was moving in slow motion. But it was her words that caught me off guard.
“This was the only day all week I haven’t had to touch a dead person!”
I would have to process the words later.
I got to the dock and threw Mike the bow line so he could tie us to the dock. I asked if I needed to take over doing chest compressions and she relented. I may have made two when she told me I needed to go deeper. I remember hearing and feeling the crunch in his chest. I remember being warned of that in class.
It was about that time that I realized there was blood all over the man’s chest and stomach. The nurse, realizing what I was seeing, told me it was hers. The barnacles had sliced her hands and feet. Soon after she took over chest compressions again.
It’s about this time that I realized there was a police officer there and he stepped in the boat and we lifted the guy out onto the dock. I happened to look up at the dockside restaurant that was a few feet away. There was a crowd outside watching.
Everything comes back to me in flashes of memory.
Paramedics were there almost immediately after. They threw him on the gurney and immediately took him away. I remember hearing the sirens. I heard the nurse say that she had left some personal items on the wall and so I got back in my boat and went over to get them. I got back and I gave them to somebody. Maybe it was Paula? I don’t remember. Everyone was gone except for a police officer who wanted my contact information. I gave it to him and he left.
I was standing alone on the dock with Paula and I looked down and saw the bloody print of a small, bare foot. Had you asked me how much time had elapsed since it started I would have told you somewhere around thirty minutes. Paula told me it was ten.
I remember feeling like a roller coaster had stopped just short of the end of the ride. I assumed the man was dead and I didn’t know his name. I assumed the nurse was gone and I didn’t know hers either. Everything felt incomplete.
On the way back we stopped off at Alice and Jessie’s boat. Somebody (probably Paula) told me that Alice was playing grandma and made sure the nurse was okay. Alice, true to form, was doing just that and I stepped into the boat to find the nurse wrapped in a blanket trying to dry off and warm up. She looked up at me and said, “Hi. We make a good team.”
I took the dinghy back to my boat and hoisted it up out of the water and started hosing out all the blood. It seemed like a lot of blood.
It was about that time that I realized there was blood all over the man’s chest. The nurse, realizing what I was seeing, told me it was hers.
I learned that the nurse’s name is Adriana. She was working as a traveling RN in the local ICU unit of the hospital. I learned that she is a vegetarian, has a bit of a gypsy soul and works enough to fund her backcountry adventures in the west. She spent New Year’s Eve with us and we took her out to the beach and we waded barefoot in the cold water. We finally got a chance to talk and try to fill in some of the details. Her cuts were healing and there was no more blood.
I learned the man’s name was Robert and that they got his heartbeat back. Unfortunately, he had gone too long without oxygen and never regained brain function. He died a little over a week later. But, it allowed his daughter and brother time to get to him and say goodbye. I met them both and they were grateful to have that last week.
Mike got the chance to tell Adriana how much she impressed him when he saw her dive into the water to rescue Robert. He had a pocket full of gift cards for her. He asked what she was thinking before she dove into the water. She told him she thought she needed to pull her hair back.
The rollercoaster finally finished the ride.
Everything slowed down. I felt like I was watching someone drown again. Except it wasn’t a person. It was a nation.
I believe we all walk away from such experiences with a degree of sobriety and reflection. In the chaos of the moment everything is slow motion. In the sea of reflection there is time to search for metaphors, lessons and perhaps meaning. There seemed to be something to glean here. My first instinct was wrong, I believe. I wanted to say that Mike, Jessie and Alice are all Trump supporters and I am not. I wanted to talk about how they’re all dear friends of mine. I don’t know what, if any political leanings Adriana has. I wanted to say I don’t really care because politics are irrelevant to this story.
I wanted the moral of this story to be that a group of people, neighbors and strangers, with different political and worldviews all came together without hesitation to try and save a life. Nobody looked away. Nobody said it wasn’t their responsibility. I wanted that to be a counterweight to the narrative of division that currently shows up on our screens each day. There was never a moment that anyone considered anyone’s feelings about the matter. Nobody considered whether the man was ‘worth’ saving. I wanted the narrative to be that we are all able to work together once politics and caricatures of “those people” are removed. And all of that is true. I’m proud to know them all. I wanted the narrative to be that we make a good team.
But, I think that’s a lesson most of us already know if we just take a moment to breathe.
So where’s the first principle here? What is the hard lesson? What is the most important thing I can learn right now?
And then January 6th happened. And I felt that feeling again as I watched the U.S. Capitol under siege.
Everything slowed down. I felt like I was watching someone drown again. Except it wasn’t a person. It was a nation.
And that’s when I realized that was the hard lesson. The first principle wasn’t that we all worked together. The first principle was that a man’s heart had stopped because his head was under water. The urgency of the moment and still being able to function even though things felt like they were happening in chaotic, slow motion. The lesson of the drowning man was being able to do the right things quickly and methodically in those precious moments. Solve that problem first. Move to the next. Don’t stop. We got him out of the water. The second problem was that we needed to get his blood moving. Adriana did that. The third problem was we needed to get to the dock where the paramedics were. I did that. After that, we could let go. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know each other or couldn’t remember exactly what happened after it was over. The hard lesson was that a group of people who all come from different political and worldviews all intuitively understood the first principle.
Which brings me back to my original question: What is the most important thing that I can teach right now?
I still wrestle with this one. But right now, for me as a journalism prof it’s not to let people or myself forget hard truths. Even when they’re painful. Even when they/I want to look the other way. Even when it destroys a worldview.
For all those who looked the other way when people people begged for help. For all who crawled in bed with Donald J. Trump, it’s time to embrace that you share his disease.
What I saw on January 6, 2021 wasn’t people trying to liberate a nation. What I saw were people trying to drag it beneath the water and drown it.
There are many who feel as if they’re disenfranchised and some who actually are. It’s important to know the difference. Claiming victimhood is a blight that’s been running unchecked and social fractures have been exploited and weaponized by the political class and social media. Conspiracy theories run rampant throughout population with an infection rate that dwarves Covid-19. And all now have witnessed first hand what I and other writers have been warning about for years. The war came to their front steps. Right now politicos and social media companies are scrambling to get their own liability under control.
After it’s too late. After it makes almost no difference at all.
This is the war that was preceded by a rise of armed militias, and immigrant children ripped from the arms of their mothers.
This war was preceded by a rise of white nationalists and neo-nazis increasingly becoming visible in our communities.
This war was preceded by the gutting of economic opportunities in rural America.
This war was preceded by fear mongering and dehumanization of American citizens.
This war was preceded by a rise in conspiracy theories given validation from White House Press Secretaries.
This war was preceded by social media algorithms that rewarded conflict.
This war was preceded by the demonization of journalism, education and science.
This war was preceded by a narrative of victimhood.
This war was preceded by too many people who didn’t speak up and bring their own ranks back into check.
This war has been going on for years. You just didn’t think it would ever come for you.
Everyone who profiteered and pushed this cart of angst to the edge of the cliff suddenly wants to claim innocence because they didn’t give it the final shove. Some are falling back to the tried and true conspiracies to rationalize what happened. To blame others. To avoid any responsibility.
For all those who profited from him. For all those who said he acted like a petulant child but they liked his policies. For all those who looked the other way when people begged for help. For all who crawled in bed with Donald J. Trump, it’s time to embrace that you share his disease. Mike Pence probably understands this most of all. The VP who ardently defended a President who at the end, sent a mob of insurrectionist who killed a federal officer and hunted for the Vice President through the halls of the nation’s capitol while chanting they wanted to hang him.
This is the hard truth. That we are in a new civil war and insurrectionists live among us. It’s an ideological one instead of territorial and try as we might we can no longer ignore it simply because it doesn’t look like we think it should. What I’ve come to realize is that too many simply won’t acknowledge the problems because they’re not the one’s drowning. They’re not the ones on the receiving end of the rhetoric. They haven’t yet been added to the list of “enemies.” And as Pence learned, all it takes is once speech to change that reality.
There are many who feel as if they’re drowning and some who actually are. What’s obvious to me is that victimization rhetoric with cut and paste boogeymen is the primary driver for those who feel as if they are, but aren’t. These narratives drive conspiracies and self-fulfilling prophecies. The administrative types want to go to the numbers and weigh their options and assessments. But this is not a moment for institutional thinking. This is a moment for first principles. What is the fundamental problem to be solved? How do we save a life of a nation?
The best thing that I can teach right now is not to let people look away. Not to let them change the subject. Not to let those who have attached themselves to this cult of personality to act as if they hold no accountability. Not let those on the right who were horrified by what they saw pretend that it was anyone other than themselves behind it. Force their faces to the mirror so they can see who was really responsible. They don’t get to forget that feeling. They don’t get to deflect. Truth hurts when it’s supposed to and this is going to hurt a lot. You don’t get to forget the drowning of the nation’s capitol, nor that your hands played a part in dragging it beneath the water.
We won’t let you forget.