What do you do when your best friend is acting recklessly and is potentially running the risk of hurting himself or others? That question is a hard question that many high school and college coeds wrestle with every day. If you know a good friend is drinking and driving and/or getting high on pills or street drugs, do you tell his parents or someone in authority?
Over the last number of weeks, I have posed these questions to a wide range of high school and college students. I was amazed at most of my responses. Every student expressed tremendous discomfort with the circumstance and really did not want to have to deal with it. Most of the students questioned felt it would be disloyal to tell a parent about a friend's potentially lethal behavior. When really pressed, as a last resort, most acknowledged that they would go to an authority figure.
Many expressed wanting to confront their friends on their own and hoped they would respond in a positive way. Some expressed that the choice to get drunk and/or high is one's personal business. They bluntly said people should not interfere.
The question was raised about the reckless behavior of another impairing or destroying an innocent life. A number of students danced around that concern. When pressed about our social responsibility for one another, that also drew a rather silent response.
It was rather shocking to hear students not respond to the call to be socially responsible, especially in the name of friendship. As I further reflected on their responses, I realized that we probably don't role model that concept very effectively.
Where in the curriculum is teaching social responsibility present? Do we even address social choices that have a tremendous impact on other people's lives? Honestly, in a formal way, we probably do little or nothing. Some of us make an effort to challenge our young people to be socially responsible and to think about their social choices before they make them. However, that paradigm of behavior is not reinforced in our larger community.
On the contrary, many of the elements of social responsibility are consistently contradicted and dismissed as impractical or inappropriate. A growing number of our young people grow up believing that might makes right, that power is what it's about and that everyone should be free to do what they want, when they want and how they want - with no restrictions!
In the area of social behavior and social choices, as it relates to high school and college age students, any sharing of information with adults and/or persons of authority would be considered disloyal or ratting out. If you are marked as a rat in high school, that is a social stigma that is hard to shake. Being named a rat is the equivalent of being a leper in the larger social community.
Someone who rats on a peer to save his own skin is not being noble or caring, but rather is being self-righteous and arrogant. A person who brings information about destructive behavior to an authority and is motivated by protecting that person and others should not be persecuted or ostracized for doing the right thing. Unfortunately, not everyone believes that kind of behavior is the right thing.
TJ was an eighteen year old college freshman attending a commuter college. In high school, he was an athlete with a nice group of friends. He had a positive relationship with his parents and a good reputation among his peers. As a college freshman, he elected not to play sports, but to get involved in campus life and student organizations. He joined a fraternity. His specific fraternity was very committed to community service and TJ loved it. But, they also loved to socialize. Many a Friday afternoon happy hour became a late night drinking party.
In the beginning, TJ didn't drink at all. However, as the semester unfolded, one beer became multiple beers on an ongoing basis. His fraternity brothers never saw him drunk, although he had a tremendous capacity to consume beer and alcohol. In the second semester, TJ was drinking multiple times a week. Some of his closest friends noted that he was doing more than drinking.
One night after a fraternity party, a group of the brothers went to a favorite watering hole to have a few drinks. TJ went with them. Before he went into the bar, they noticed him sitting in his car snorting something. One of his friends asked him what it was. At first, he was silent and then he acknowledged he was snorting coke. His friend was shocked! TJ assured him that he only did it occasionally for recreation. After that exchange, they both went into the bar.
Once in the bar, everyone was doing shots, including TJ. Around 4am, people started going home. One of the brothers offered to take TJ home, but he assured everyone he was fine. One of his friends became more persistent and said, "You're not fine. You are strung out on coke and high on booze. There is no way you should get behind a wheel and drive yourself home."
TJ became belligerent and said he was driving himself home. He told his friends to mind their own business. He said he was an adult and could make his own choices. His friends backed down and went their separate ways.
While driving home at 4am on Route 97 at excessive speed, TJ lost control of his car, skidded off the road into some woods and hit a tree. Another motorist saw this happen, called 911 and went to help TJ. Thanks to this anonymous stranger, who pulled TJ out of his car before it ignited into flames, TJ's life was saved.
When the police arrived at the scene, TJ was unconscious in a pool of blood. The ambulance arrived a few minutes after the police and rushed him to Stony Brook University Hospital.
Miraculously, he only suffered a few broken ribs, a gash on his forehead and a broken wrist. After a forty-eight hour stay in the hospital, TJ was released. He was never given a breathalyzer and was never really asked about the accident. Luckily, no one else was involved and only a tree and his car were damaged. He was very lucky. Unfortunately, he faced no real accountability for his reckless decision-making.
When TJ got back to school, his fraternity brothers asked him how he was feeling. He totally minimized the whole event. One of his friends really laid into him and said he was lucky to be alive. He expressed his own guilt for not blocking TJ from driving and for not calling the police. A few of the other guys who were with him that night did not see it as their responsibility to have done anything more than offer him a ride home. When he refused, they felt they were off the hook.
If TJ did not survive the accident, I wonder how his fraternity brothers would have felt. Would they have really felt let off the hook had he died? It is a hard circumstance to think about and face, but one that is occurring every weekend in our larger community.
If friendship is really a number one priority in most of our lives, then we must be willing to risk our social safeness in regards to protecting a friend from hurting himself and others. Caring about others is risky business. If we take it seriously, we are going to find ourselves in uncomfortable circumstances. Hopefully, because we care, we will risk that discomfort for the sake of potentially saving another's life!