The squirrel wavered, teetering on a branch high above the heads of my friend Taryn and her husband James, who were enjoying a picnic lunch at a concert in Central Park. They noticed the squirrel and commented to each other that it looked… off, somehow. Maybe it was sick, maybe it was injured. They sat listening to the concert amid a happy crowd of other picnickers in the grass. It was a lovely day, the music was mellow, and the air smelled of sunscreen and good food. The city was out in full force, families and couples and friends sunning themselves with blankets spread out. The quintessential New York summer day.
Suddenly there was a dull thud, and everybody turned to see what it was. The squirrel had fallen from the tree and landed right in the middle of the crowd. You might assume that New Yorkers who can saunter past the “naked cowboy” in Times Square or nonchalantly report to work downtown after someone tries to blow up the Federal Reserve Building would be unfazed by the sudden airborne arrival of a squirrel. But no. Pandemonium ensued. People were screaming, running, scattering in all directions, parents shielding their children’s eyes as they dragged them away.
The squirrel lay writhing in the grass, clearly in pain, unable to drag itself any farther. James, who had grown up on a farm, knew what had to be done. He went and found a large rock. He came back to where the squirrel was lying. They made eye contact. He covered the squirrel with a plastic bag. He picked up the rock and euthanized the squirrel. The screams of the onlookers subsided to whispered awe—“What happened?” “Did he just kill that squirrel?” “Is it dead? Is it dead?” And people slowly came back and gathered around.
It is tempting to say that there are two kinds of people in the world: people like James and people like the retreating onlookers. But it’s probably more accurate to say that we each have two impulses within us—the impulse to engage with the challenges that drop out of the sky and the impulse to retreat. I fear that, all too often, the impulse to retreat wins.
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