See also Defining Freedom. Epistemic status: Emotional.
Here’s the most common anime trope: The hero’s been driven to desperation by an enemy completely beyond his power, and it looks like he (and, probably, the whole world) is doomed. But suddenly the hero discovers his hidden strengths, turns blonde, and punches the bad guy into oblivion (This may take several episodes).
This makes for a good story, and isn’t restricted to anime. Gilmore Girls starts off with Lorelei reaching out to her estranged parents once she’s desperate enough for money. TvTropes has a whole page about characters who’s despair finally drives them to an anguished confession of love. We want to believe in this story, because we want to believe we have hidden powers that we’re just not desperate enough to use. That if we were pushed to the brink, we’d not only find out we could deal with it, but that we have hidden powers once we lose our inhibitions. We want to believe in a big red switch that would make us powerful, if we’re ever hard-up enough to break the glass and hit it.
Life doesn’t have a break glass option.
I found this out when I was fifteen. For the first time in my life I had a best friend. Heck, I had two, the guy I competed with for the “best at math” spot and the girl I’d talk to on MSN messenger, who seemed like the first person who’d ever actually listened to me. I was happy. Inevitably, they started dating, and didn’t care much about me after that.
The hard part was the change. I’d had these people who’d cared what I had to say, and suddenly nothing I said could reach them anymore. And I didn’t have an emergency button to make them listen. There wasn’t something we’d fought over I could apologize for, there wasn’t something I could do to turn things back. They’d moved on, and nothing I could do could bring them back. It didn’t matter how hard I was willing to try.
A few months later we had our big fight and official falling out, but by then it didn’t really matter.
I know I was lucky. God knows there’s worse ways to find out what it’s like to have no way out.
Most cases we encounter aren’t like this. Most cases have a break glass button that doesn’t actually fix anything.
For example, it always seems a bit weird to me that women ever complain about being lonely. Lonely women can always get on a dating app or go to a bar and have dozens of guys showering them with attention and, if they want, sleeping with them. How can you say you’re lonely when you always have that option? If you were really desperate for companionship, you could always hit the button.
The answer is, it’s not a real option. Picking up a random stranger for a one-night stand doesn’t actually make you feel less lonely. It’s tempting to reach for an emergency button that might do something, but one you know doesn’t help won’t be particularly tempting even if you’re desperate.
(In the interests of gender fairness, I should mention the break-glass option men have that women don’t: If someone’s pushing us too far and we really, really don’t want to be in this conversation anymore, we can always get out of it by punching someone in the face. Like the option mentioned above, this comes with a cost and doesn’t actually make anything better, which is why most men don’t use it to get out of unpleasant situations much).
In defining freedom, I defined freedom as the number of directions in which you can act without falling off a utility cliff. You can think of break-glass options as small cliffs – not ones you’d actually jump off, but ones you could imagine jumping off when you’re not in front of them. It’s a lot easier to say you’d jump a ten-foot cliff to get out of the situation you’re in when you’re facing a hundred-foot cliff than when you’re actually in front of a ten-foot cliff.
This is a major barrier to empathy: When something’s not even an option to you, it’s easy to be dismissive of how trapped people feel when they have it as a break-glass option. And conversely, when you’re desperate enough to actually hit a break-glass option, it can be hard to make someone who doesn’t have that option how desperate you had to be to hit it. “Of course you went there”, they’d say. “You always had that option.”
Some people think suicide is the ultimate break-glass option, so they can hit it if things ever get really bad. These people are idiots. Suicide, like punching your boss to get out of an uncomfortable presentation at work, isn’t an option that can ever make things better. Sometimes people are desperate enough for a break-glass option to convince themselves that suicide is one anyway.
This is all pretty depressing. To end on an optimistic note, I’ll say that just because there’s no desperation safety guard doesn’t mean things can never get better. But improvement is slow and incremental, and gets harder the worse off you are. You don’t get an emergency switch and you don’t get magical healing, but at best, you do get rehab. Slow, painful, gradual rehab, but eventually you can walk again.