- You're alone in a dark ally when suddenly out of the shadows a thug approaches you with a knife and demands your money, threatening to kill you if you don't comply.
- The smell of smoke awakens you to the horror of your house on fire. You don't know where your spouse is, but two young children are in a bedroom down the hall.
- In the middle of the night, you feel something slither into your sleeping bag. Instinctively you know it's a snake, but you have no idea what kind.
- As you round a blackberry bush, you come face-to-face with a bear.
- A sudden microburst of wind topples trees onto powerlines, dragging them from their poles and onto the ground all around where you are standing.
Of course there is no end to the variety of scenarios we could play with in this exercise. But let's take these few one at a time to work through the decision process.
- The thugging — Questions to ask yourself as you make a decision about how to handle this situation might include such variables as your physical condition. Are you even capable of running away, or are you crippled and using a walker just to get around? (You see, it's not always easy to make a snap judgement based on a short description of a scenario.) Do you just hand the guy your wallet and hope for the best? What other options are open to you? Can you create a distraction by throwing a pile of bills into the air so they scatter and cause the thug to divert his attention from you while you escape? Are you a martial arts expert with years of experience disarming knife-wielding opponents? Are you a little old lady who can fake a heart attack? What is the best decision to make?
- House on fire — Can you get to a phone to call 9-1-1? Have you prepared your family by doing fire drills, complete with escape training through windows by using collapsible ladders kept in bedrooms for just such an emergency? Do you run through the house screaming to find your missing spouse? Do you jump out of the window, grab a garden hose and start spraying the house? Do you try to rescue the kids? Do you feel the closed door to detect heat on the other side before opening? What do you do?
- Snake in your sleeping bag — I have to admit that this one gives me the willies, just thinking about it. If ever there was a time to remain calm, this is it. All snakes are cold-blooded, so it would be natural for one to seek the comfort of your warm sleeping bag. It isn't there because you look like a good meal — it's only trying to stay warm. But do you lose your mind, jump up and start screaming while trying to extricate yourself from the bag? Or do you just lie there pretending to be dead, hoping the serpent won't defile itself by having your dead carcass for a midnight snack? Think about how you would handle this situation.
- Bear in the bush — Do you know what to do if you find yourself sharing blackberries with a bruin? Do you know the different habits of different types of bears…black bears vs. grizzlies for example? Do you run, or stand your ground, staring the bear in the eyes to convince her that you're bigger and badder and she better leave your bush alone? Do you look for a tree to climb, or fall down and do your best imitation of a corpse? The right decision might save your life — the wrong one will get you killed.
- Powerlines down — With live wires snapping around you like high-voltage snakes, what is the right thing to do? Do you just stand still and hope the wires won't jump and touch you? Do you carefully try to pick your way through the tangle of wires so you can escape to safety? Do you take your shoes off or leave them on? Is it safe to throw your coat over the wires so you can pass by without danger? Do you try to move the wires with a stick (as long as it's wood, it should be safe, right? Not!)? Make the wrong decision and you're toast — literally!
The point of this whole exercise is to prompt you to think about what you would do in a variety of situations. When I was studying Taoism, I was impressed by the concept of figuring out all your possible moves ahead of time, so you would never face a situation you hadn't already considered. That lowers the surprise factor significantly. There is wisdom in planning how you would handle tough situations, inserting as many "what would I do if…" variables as you can think of. Eliminate the surprises and you are able to remain more calm and make the right decisions.