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.
I mean, who hasn’t rehearsed a round-house kick to a mugger’s head? Or replayed that scene in our minds where we save the girl from the crooks in the alley?
We love to think that when danger arises we’ll stand up for ourselves, but 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. It’s a mix of quick and thoughtless reaction that’s kept mankind alive for tens of thousands of years.
So, 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 Bogotá, Colombia. My girlfriend, Ava and I were slowly acclimating to the new city as we’d spent the previous two weeks relaxing in Costa Rica, swinging in hammocks and ordering Pina Coladas from English speaking bartenders. Bogotá, on the other hand, beat us over the head with screeching traffic and a new dialect of Spanish that said, “Get out of the way, gringo.”
Despite the sudden absence of Pura Vida rhythm, we did our best to explore the city and make the most of our time. We admired La Candelaria’s street art, took selfies with famous Botero paintings, and had mixed feelings about street corner empanadas.
It was the middle of the day when it happened. We walked up the hill past Universidad Los Andes towards Mount Monserrate. We curved around the narrow street and when I looked up I saw two thin Colombian men about to walk right into us.
For a second, I thought that they just didn’t want to share the sidewalk. When they shot their arms out and grabbed for my throat I knew I was wrong.
The first man yanked the collar of my shirt with one hand and held a short knife up with the other. He shouted in Spanish and waved the blade at my torso. His hands began to claw at my backpack and Ava screamed as the other man shoved her against the wall.
I got into a few fights in high school. I’ve taken a punch and thrown a few of my own (which always resulted in a sore fist and a horrible feeling). But for the majority 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. In other words: I know how to tuck it back, give a curtsey, and offer to buy the next round.
Those are the moments in life that border on humbling and humiliating. And it’s in those moments that we often discover that — just maybe — we aren’t who we thought we were. Deep down, maybe we aren’t Jack Bauer.
Standing in a foreign land with foreign hands on my throat and a knife’s shine in my eyes, I wish I could say that I weighed my options and thought out my next move. I wish I could tell you how I looked inward and summoned strength from a deep well of mental courage.
But I didn’t. I didn’t think at all.
What I felt next was my ancient, primitive hardwiring hitting like a jolt of lightning. The hair on my neck sprang up. A charge of adrenaline filled my veins and forced my arms to grab the assailant and say,
“Not today, motherfucker.”
I tossed him away like a dried up empanada and created enough space to see where the second man was. He had thrown Ava into the wall and was now moving towards me. The first guy charged back, grabbing my shirt again and this time tearing it from the collar down past my chest. I went backwards and pulled him down with me.
Now on my back, two sets of hands clawed at me, trying to pull my backpack over my head. I held onto the pack for dear life with one hand and defended myself with the other. That’s when Ava bounce off the wall and grabbed the second man by the arm and pulled him away, allowing 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 knife was back out. I can still see the blade. Nothing impressive. Flat and dull and about as long as my thumb. In that moment I didn’t know whether or not it could even cut me. But I did know one thing for certain— it was coming right for me.
We squared off. Ava let out another scream. But then as quickly as it had started, it ended. The slice of the knife never came.
Once it was clear that we weren’t going down without a fight both men sprinted down the hill as fast as they could.
Ava and I stared at each other. She was crying in disbelief. I groped my body, searching for wounds through my torn tee shirt. Nothing but scratches along my forearms and a bruise on my elbow that would show up a few days later.
If it were to happen again, I’m not sure Ava or I would react the same way. In certain situations like this, the smart move would been to surrender. But in this case, our response was correct. We still have our possessions, our pride, and are here to tell the story. We are also extremely lucky.
Despite all we’ve been taught, the statistics we’ve read, and a lifetime of action-movie storylines, it’s still our evolutionary hardwiring that gets the final word on how we react to violence.
If being in Bogotá at knifepoint taught me anything, it’s that whether you retreat or stand your ground in the face of danger — it’s the power of acting without thinking that will save your life.
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