I never knew how I’d react if a stranger were to pull a knife on me. Sure, I’d thought about it. We all have. Most guys—we’ve fantasized about it. We’ve all rehearsed that round-house kick to the mugger’s head. We’ve replayed the scene where we save the girl from the crooks in the alley a thousand times.
We all love to think that when danger arises we’ll stand our ground and fight. However, it’s our evolutionary “fight or flight” response that gets the final word. And here’s the thing about fight or flight: it’s designed to take thinking out of the equation. Thinking gets in the way of reacting. And for tens of thousands of years, quick and thoughtless reaction has been what’s helped keep mankind alive.
When the time came for me—when push did finally come to shove—I was reminded of how little thinking I had time for.
It was our first day in Bogota, Colombia. My girlfriend Ava and I were slow in acclimating to the new city. We spent the previous two weeks relaxing in Costa Rica, swinging in hammocks and ordering Pina Coladas from English speaking bartenders. Bogotá beat us over the head with screeching traffic and its pedestrian’s marching pace. Despite the sudden absence of the “Pura Vida” rhythm, we did our best to explore the city and take in the sights.
We admired La Candelaria’s street art, took selfies with famous Botero paintings, and had mixed feelings about the street corner empanadas we ate.
It was the middle of the day when it happened. We were walking up the hill past Universidad Los Andes towards Mount Monserrate. We curved around the narrow street and saw two thin Colombian men walking towards us. It looked as though they weren’t going to move out of our way, and I thought for a second that they just didn’t want to share the sidewalk. I was wrong.
One of the men walked straight into me, grabbed the collar of my shirt with one hand, and held up a short knife with his other. He shouted in Spanish and pointed toward my torso. His hand clawed at my chest and Ava screamed as the other man shoved her against the wall.
The only fights I’d ever been in were in high school. Sure, I’ve taken a punch. I’ve thrown a few of my own (always with the result of a sore fist and a horrible feeling inside). For most of my 29 years, I have a history of backing down from violence.
When drunken arguments become parking lot square-offs, I revert back to the charming diplomat my mother raised me to be. In other words: I tuck it back, give a curtsey and offer to buy the next round.
These moments in life border on humbling and humiliating. It’s in these moments that we often discover that, just maybe, we aren’t who we thought we were. That maybe, deep down, we aren’t Jack Bauer.
Standing there in a foreign land with this man’s hand on my chest and his knife’s shine in my eyes, I wish I could tell you that I weighed my options and thought out my next move. That I looked inward and pulled from a deep well of courage.
But I didn’t. I didn’t think at all.
What I felt was the most primitive of ancient hardwiring hitting me like a jolt of lightning. The hair on my neck sprang up. A charge of adrenaline filled my arms as they grabbed the assailant and said, “Not today, motherfucker.”
I shoved him away while my eyes darted to see where the second man was. He had thrown Ava into the wall and was coming towards me. The first guy came charging back, grabbing my shirt again and tearing it from the collar down past my chest. We both went down.
Much of what happened next is a bit blurry. I do remember two sets of hands coming over me, pulling my backpack over my head. The pack landed on my chest. I held onto it for dear life with one hand and defended myself with the other. I remember seeing Ava bounce off the wall and grab the second man by the arm, pulling him away. This allowed me to get back to my feet and square up with the first man.
We stood face to face. I looked at him and the shine of the knife. The blade looked flat and dull and in that moment I knew one thing for certain—it was coming right for me.
But it never did.
As quickly as it had started, it was over. He lowered his arms and ran away. I turned around and watched both men sprint down the hill.
Ava and I stared at each other. She was crying in disbelief. I groped my body, searching for wounds through my torn tee shirt. I still don’t know how or why that knife never made contact with my body.
If it were to happen again, I’m not sure Ava or I would react the same way. In certain situations, the smarter move would have been to surrender. But in this case, our response was correct. We still have our possessions, our pride, and are here, unharmed, to tell the story. We are extremely lucky.
Despite all we’ve been taught, the statistics we’ve read, and a lifetime of being steeped in action-movie storylines—when danger arises, it’s still our evolutionary hardwiring that gets the final word.
If being in Bogota at knife point taught me anything, it’s that whether you run away or stand your ground in the face of danger— it’s still the power of acting without thinking that will save your life.