It astounds me the way the simplest little thing can escalate into something of vast proportions. Here’s a for-instance hypothetical scenario. You are about to take a vitamin pill, but it jumps out of your fingers and you drop it on the floor, because of that ancient Law of Objects, which states that everything always winds up on the floor. So you crawl under the kitchen table to get it, and while standing back up you smack your head on the underside of the table. Defying all reason, there is a screw sticking out of the bottom of the table, right in the exact spot where you smack your head. (It wasn’t there yesterday, but it’s there today.) When you hit your head on the screw, blood sprays all over the floor and the front of the cupboards because nothing gushes blood like a scalp wound. At the sight of all that blood, your daughter throws up, your son passes out, and your husband wads up your favorite guest towel and presses it against the minor wound on your head that is pouring forth like a geyser. Before you can say “what removes blood stains from the car upholstery?” you are sitting in the ER. You will have to work overtime for three years to pay the ER bill, your favorite T-shirt is ruined (not to mention the guest towel), your daughter will be teasing your son for the rest of his life about having passed out when mom geysered, and you never did take your vitamin. See what I’m saying? Escalation.
One minute everything is going along just fine and the next minute a twinge in the toe has evolved, step by absurd step, into a broken leg. I have taken my car into the shop for a routine oil change and been told the transmission is shot or the breaks need to be replaced or the primary rotary biliary compressor eggbeater shaft is worn out and I should not drive the car unless I put $60,000 into it to fix it. Escalation. I take my cat to the vet for her annual shots and the vet says she will lose all her teeth if I don’t pay $600 to have the vet sedate the cat and scrape the tuna-fish off her teeth. Escalation. I am weeding my cantaloupe patch and I disturb a nest of yellow jackets resulting in over 15 stings, anaphylactic shock, and an ER bill the size of Nebraska. Escalation.
If you need any more examples of escalation you should visit my husband’s family. They are grand masters at the stuff. After 34 years of marriage, I have come to know a thing or two about Ron’s family. One thing I have learned is that after the sun goes down, when someone in his family says “I’m hungry, does anyone want to go out for something to eat?” mayhem soon follows. A bunch of his cousins along with various and sundry other friends, relatives, nearby unsuspecting people (who may or may not know his family), and a little dog cram into a car or two and head out for the nearest fast-food joint. They are a recipe for escalation. One time a car of his relatives in search of late-night snack was pulled over by the police because either a tail light was out or they were a car full of Black people. While examining the tail light, the police discovered that Cousin Phillip was in possession of an unlicensed gun. If the crew thought they were hungry when they left the house, they were super hungry by the time someone bailed them out. In Ron’s family, going out for a bite to eat after dark can lead to such escalated outcomes as identity theft, lost dogs, mangled drainpipes, transporting outdated shoes across state lines, alien invasion, death, and nuclear war. It rarely leads to the actual eating of food.
Recently some friends of mine were commenting on how home projects can escalate so that they require an inconceivable amount of extra steps because of something unexpected that crops up. Disintegration of fixtures in old homes. Renegade salespeople at the hardware store selling you the wrong part. An Allen wrench falling down the drain. Parts missing from the package. (Did you buy it at Sears? What did you expect?) Assembly instructions in Chinese. Think of those little house problems you notice that turn out to be enormous (and cost more to fix than the mortgage). You notice a little pile of sawdust in a corner and it turns out your attic is infested with opossums. So you go to the library to get a cookbook with opossum recipes in it, but it turns out they moved the library to Michigan to clean the carpets. While in Michigan you contract lead poisoning from the water.
The way one thing leads to another, it’s remarkable that anyone accomplishes anything in this world. I have heard my father tell the story of the ill-fated picnic he participated in with our family (when I was a child) and my parents’ friends the Harts. The Harts set up chairs and a portable aluminum table for the lunch, which was spread out like a vision of picnic perfection. At the lunch, one of the Hart’s children knocked a cup of milk with his elbow while reaching across the table. Mr. Hart lunged to grab the cup of milk before it spilled, and he swiftly performed a chain reaction of maneuvers that managed to overturn the entire lightweight table with food splattered on the people and the ground, and the picnic demolished. Chalk one up for the ants.
I’m considering practicing the art of de-escalation as a preemptive defense tactic. What if I look at situations and consider how I can simplify and avoid extra steps that could potentially go awry and fuel the escalation beast? So if, for example, I’m out of eggs, instead of running to the store, I’ll change the menu for dinner, thus avoiding the possibility of falling off a curb and breaking my ankle. I could become an effective escalation disruptor. The next time I drop a vitamin on the floor, I’m leaving it there until I sell the house. There’s a concept.
Remember this game? Based on the Escalation Premise.