Throughout our lives, we are taught that we need to listen to authority, follow instructions, and go with the crowd. That certainly makes for more orderly schools and work places, but it doesn’t work in emergencies. Even if we are alone, the voice of propriety may drown out our protective instincts if we’re not careful. The fact is that when your life is on the line, you need to listen to your instincts and notice your surroundings so you can make the right decision. When I was backpacking in my twenties throughout Europe, I found myself being followed one night by someone on a deserted road in Saltzberg. The good girl in me wanted to ignore that I was being followed, in case I was mistaken. After all, I didn’t want to make a scene. But my intuition knew that I would be in trouble if I didn’t do something drastic. As the footsteps got closer to me, I looked around and found the only people in sight, which was a couple sitting in a parked car, and I jumped in their car and asked them to please take me to my hotel. They were surprisingly gracious, and the stalker moved on. If I hadn’t listened to my instincts, the ending might very well have been different.
Take the incident this week in London, with the huge high rise, Grenfell Tower, bursting into flames and tenants being told to stay in place so that they could be safely rescued. Many of those people did not made it out, because they couldn’t be reached by firefighters in time before they succumbed to smoke inhalation. Those people supposedly did the right thing, listening to authority and obediently waiting for help. But as a result, they didn’t survive. According to the New York Times, “The fire action protocol said that residents who were safely inside their apartments when there was a fire elsewhere should stay put, keeping doors and windows closed… But David King, a building engineer, said that in his three-decade career, he had never heard of residents in high-rise buildings being told to stay put.” The BBC stated: “One resident of Grenfell Tower, Michael Paramasivan, said that he had been told in the case of fire he must stay in his flat – advice he ignored. ‘If we had stayed in that flat, we would have perished,’ he said. This is not the first time the advice to stay put has been called into question.”
During 9/11, after the North Tower was hit, many workers in the South Tower were told to return to their desks since the danger was confined to the other tower. Following these instructions ended up needlessly killing many people. According to The Guardian, “The evidence that people were instructed by employers and security guards to remain in the South Tower, and thus were condemned to death, is spreading this weekend. Ernie Falk… said that he was walking into the bank’s reception area when he heard a ‘horrendous boom’ of the first plane’s impact, and made a successful run for it… ‘I heard people being told, ‘The building is secure. The safest place is inside; stay calm and do not leave.’ That’s what they were saying. They were telling people to go back up to their offices and their desks, like the building was not in danger.’ People who worked in offices above the ninety-third story would have been able to reach their workplaces only for the second plane to plow into the tower beneath them – leaving them with little or no chance of survival.”
One of the biggest lessons of these tragedies is that people did listen to authority and perished as a result. So often we want to please others and do the right thing and to fit in with the culture. When I was a new college graduate, I worked in a high rise just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Our offices were on the 50-60th Floors. My first day of work, I asked where all the exits were. I was told that the elevator was all that I needed. They figured that there wasn’t going to be a fire, and if there was, it would be taken care. In almost two years of working there, we never had a fire safety drill, so I always kept in mind where those exists were. At home, we have a ladder in my office to extend from our second floor window in case of fire. I taught my kids how to check for two exits on every flight and how to count the seat backs in case of smoke. I also taught them the universal sign for choking in case they are ever choking, so that they can be helped. I’ve taken self-defense and I’ve taught some moves to my daughter, reminding her that she’s a sitting duck if she just wanders down the street looking at her phone, as so many people do. It’s important to stay alert and notice surroundings, so you can see the van hurdling toward a pedestrian pathway, which is sadly more common these days.
To find your world stage, keep yourself safe in your daily life by noticing your surrounding and not listening to instructions asking you to stay put in an emergency. The authorities may want to maintain order, but in the end, you want to maintain your life, which is far more important than pleasing others. You may want to not embarrass yourself by jumping in a strangers car for safety, but in the end, keeping safe is more important than looking cool. The world needs what you have to offer. It’s your job to stay safe.
Grenfell Towers in flames