WHEN I WAS ABOUT TEN YEARS OLD, I was traumatized by one of those ethical who-gets-to-survive questions. I’m sure Miss Presti was just trying to build character, but asking a fourth grader with a tendency toward anxiety attacks to make a life-and-death decision seems less like nurturing and more like water boarding. The question was something like this: Okay, little children, your house is on fire and it’s going to burn to the ground. All the human beings get out safely. You only have time to save one belonging. What will it be?
I’d never worried before about the house burning down. Going to hell for talking back to my mom, yes; getting hit by a car, absolutely. Fear of dying from an undiagnosed acute medical condition, and fear of my parents divorcing would both come later, in sixth grade. In fourth grade I now had to add my house burning down to my growing list of looming worries.
What would I save? I realized immediately I had not one, but two possessions to which I was deeply attached: my pet rabbit Tootsie and my stuffed dog Bullabart. Instinctively, I knew I should save the rabbit, because the rabbit was alive and the stuffed animal was not. I knew by then that ethics required the construction of hierarchies, and obviously the sacredness of life was at the top. I also knew that quality of life was a critical consideration in the hierarchy of needs, and I needed Bullabart to fall asleep at night. Period. His presence was not optional. I left him at the library once, and I didn’t realize he was missing until the library had closed for the evening. I barely survived a fitful night of angst, and when my mother fetched him in the morning from a bookshelf in the children’s section, oddly missing his tail, I vowed I would never part from him again.
So now I had to make a life-or-death choice. Always the rational rebel, I argued with Miss Presti that I must to be allowed to rescue two things, but she wouldn’t budge from the original assignment. On the verge of tears, I chose to save Bullabart. I justified that maybe Tootsie could count as a person, since she was alive, or alternatively that Tootsie’s cage was technically not in the house, since it was in the backyard against the outside wall of the house. I could pull Bullabart from the flames, and then once outside, I could make sure Tootsie was safe, too. I didn’t tell Miss Presti my secret plan to save them both.
In my mind, I had cheated. Which led to an intensified fear of going to hell. It’s no wonder I spent a good part of the fourth grade in the nurse’s office with a stomach ache, lying on a cot while Mrs. Neary encouraged me to pass gas, which I sure as heck wasn’t going to do. I was on the verge of puberty, and I was convinced that everyone noticed everything I did at all times, from tripping on an uneven sidewalk to blinking my eyes. What if one of my peers walked into the nurse’s office for a cough drop at the moment I farted? That would ruin my life forever.
The teacher’s query took other forms over time, in other classes, by some other adult whose goal it was to build moral character. The infamous life raft dilemma, with a varying cast of characters. I recall an old person, a child, a pregnant woman, a priest, and the captain. I never knew how to make peace with the idea that I alone was deciding who would live and who would die. Who would I save? If Bullabart were on that life raft, my decision would be clearer.
The what-would-I-save quandary has followed me for thirty years, echoing in my brain and intruding into my daily thoughts. What would I save? As I aged, I loved new and different things that became my priorities. Roller skates. My class ring. Cash. And still Bullabart. (I didn’t stop sleeping with him until age 23, when his body began decomposing. A nameless teddy bear filled the void briefly, and then a woman permanently took Bullabart’s place in my bed, while he retired to the closet.) The question continues to pop into my head, demanding an answer. What would I save?
I pondered the concept recently while using shoe polish for the first time on my worn-out black, scuffed shoes, now sleek black with a blinding shine as if I was in boot camp. Shoe polish: What a great invention, like white out, dental floss and the French press. Could I live without these things? If the creek behind my house flooded, if my home were foreclosed, if a bomb hit Trumansburg, what would I be willing to sacrifice as I prepared to flee? What would I save?
The truth is that what-if ethical dilemmas piss me off as much as they make me anxious, because I am neither on a life raft, nor is my house burning down, nor are we in the midst of a war in Trumansburg. Today, I do not have to decide between my French press and my Sharpie collection. I know my fourth grade teacher was trying to help us develop ethical decision-making skills; I just think she should have passed out Xanax with those purple mimeographed handouts. For me, being presented with such dilemmas was comparable to warning an obsessive-compulsive hand washer in jest that stepping on cracks breaks your mother’s back. If they hadn’t thought of that one yet, they will now, and will they ever, at each and every sidewalk crack they have to step over.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for those people who can make the right decision in the face of crisis, like to risk one’s life to tackle a gunman. In that situation, hopefully I’d make the right choice, too. I think I would. That is, as long as Bullabart isn’t the one holding the weapon.