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Self-Defense Fail: Kindness or Fear?

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I think I'm pretty tough.

I work out. More than a decade of my life was spent competing in martial arts. I used to teach self defense. These are all things that have made me feel safe while having a husband who is gone a lot and three children to protect. I don't spook easily.

Recently, I got seriously spooked.

I had just dropped my youngest off at preschool and stopped by my favorite walking trail. The weather is finally nice enough here in Florida for outdoor outings not to be endurance events. I even downloaded a playlist of happy songs and planned to treat myself to some nature.

I stopped on a bridge to watch a whole family of turtles swimming in the sunshine -- baby turtles! -- when a man approached me. I didn't take my earbuds out but fumbled to pause my music, annoyed with his intrusion.

"Yes?" I asked him.

"Can I walk with you?"

(Who asks that? People don't go up to strangers and ask to walk with them. My intuition-spidey senses-gut instincts started pinging.)

"Umm, I'm out here to exercise," I said. "I walk pretty fast."

"I don't mind. I can keep up." Then he said, "Will you be my friend?"

He seemed mentally disabled. I felt guilty, even as my annoyance increased. This was MY time. MY walk. MY sanity break in nature. I didn't want to spend it talking to a mentally disabled guy.

I chastised myself. My time wasn't that important, was it? Would it really kill me to talk to this guy?

(Yes. Yes it might have really killed me. Stay tuned.)

He started talking, hopscotching from one topic to the next. First, he asked me my name and told me his. Then he asked me what sort of things I like to do. I told him that I like to write.

"I don't do that," he said. "People say that I'm slow. But I have a journal I write things down in."

My heart went out to this guy. "That's writing!" I said. "And I don't like hearing you call yourself 'slow' -- you are exactly how God made you to be!"

(Maybe God put this guy in my path to teach me patience, or kindness, or some other virtue. That's how all those "Readers Digest" stories start, right? I am such a good person.)

"I've been writing in my journal more since I got out of the hospital," he said.

"Oh, why were you in the hospital?"

"They made me go to the hospital after I tried to kill my little nephew," he said. "They said I tried to rape him. I wanted to have sex with the devil."

(Was this really happening? It felt like an episode of "Criminal Minds.")

"This is where I usually turn around," I lied.

"OK, I'll turn around too," he said. "You're fast."

"I warned you. I came here today to exercise!" I tried to sound chipper and unafraid.

Then the conversation got even darker. He told me that he learned in the hospital that he shouldn't do the things he wants to do, but that it's hard to control the urges.

"Uh-huh," I said. "Well, maybe you can pray to God to help you with that."

(Didn't that one lady keep from getting killed because she read "The Purpose Driven Life" to her attacker?)

"I like God. I can't wait to go to heaven," he said. "But I don't want to die. I'm not scared to die, but I don't want to feel the pain."

"Nobody wants to feel pain," I said, instantly wishing I hadn't said anything about feeling pain.

"When I get to heaven, I'll see all my pets there," he said.

"A lot of people believe pets go to heaven," I said. "What kind of pets have you had?"

"I had lizards, but I killed them," he said. And then he started telling me how he had killed them. I pretended to listen, but I looked at the creek instead, then over at the trees on the other side of the trail. I'm a good swimmer, I thought.

"I want another pet, but I don't want to hurt him," he said.

"My sister says you should just do the next right thing. That's all you need to worry about. Just do the next right thing," I told him.

"That's good," he said. "That's really good."

We reached the end of the trail. There were people sitting on benches there. He shook my hand and said he'd enjoyed talking with me, then he turned around and walked back to the trail, to walk it again.

When I was sure he wasn't watching me, I walked to my car, got in and drove straight to the police station.

On that trail, I realized that I had no idea what to do. If he had attacked me, I believe I would have tried to protect myself and tried to run. But he didn't try to attack me. I realized that I might have felt safer if I'd had pepper spray or some other small weapon. But even if I'd had one, I don't know that I would have used it.

I know I would have felt safer if I'd been walking with a friend -- probably he wouldn't have even talked to me -- but I'd gone on that walk because I wanted solitude.

Perhaps I never should have turned my music off to talk to him -- but if I hadn't, maybe he would have followed me anyway, and maybe he would have been angry that I had ignored him.

I'm still mulling it over. What should I have done? What would you have done?

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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