People often think they’ll keep it together in a disaster. Power fantasies typically revolve around that. People go through all the ways where they can be the heroes or rational ones. In my experience, though, that’s not how things usually go. You never know who’s going to cry on you or hold steady. You might think it’s the cocky ones who will be okay, or maybe the ’strong, silent’ ones. But you don’t really know until you’re in the situation, which, as you might surmise, often is too late.
There was a recent Cracked.com article called “5 Beliefs About Surviving a Disaster (That Can Kill You)” (link). I loved Cracked, as most know. Normally I just share the link and move on, but this one I actually had some personal experience with, so I wanted to indirectly flout how awesome I am by giving some commentary to the whole mess. Because, blog.
So, *ahem*, away we go.
The article breaks down some good examples of how movies, our egos and actual biology tend to royally mess with our abilities to rationally react and survive extreme situations. From higher brain functions shutting down in the face of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex (link), to movies giving us the idea that things will go a certain way (link), we are generally screwed in regards to our fantasies of averting or thriving in disastrous circumstances. It’s why when disasters actually happen (or even when encountering a jarring situation like running into a celebrity), most of us are reduced to quivering, whimpering mutes.
Two points from the article in particular: “Our brains won’t work the way we think they will” and “When our brains are working, they can make things worse” are particularly telling for people who have been through mildly to severely life-threatening situations.
Namely, people aren’t rational in extreme situations. They do crazy things and have crazy ideas. The body goes through intense and bizarre chemical and physiological changes in efforts to survive. In the article, they cite instances where hypothermic people try and take their clothes off because they feel hot, or how panicking scuba divers might take their regulators out of their mouths in order to try and breathe more easily.
I can attest to that last one.
I was diving down in the Galapagos Islands a couple of years ago. I was having trouble sinking (exhaling every ounce of air in my lungs and kicking to get below the water). I kept bobbing up to the surface with each breath from my tank. Well, I did finally make it down to the sea floor, but at that point I was hyperventilating. The constant inhaling and exhaling overtaxed my regulator. That meant it wasn’t giving me enough air, which compounded the problem. It felt like I had just sprinted 400 meters and I was breathing through a towel. Panic began to set in. I couldn’t breathe. Everything in me screamed to rip out my mouthpiece and gasp for air…while 50 feet under water. That wouldn’t have been optimal.
Spoiler alert, I survived. I was able to calm myself down and push through the overwhelming fear.
Now I’m a billion miles from being some Matrix Neo or Jason Bourne type. However, I have been in fights. I have had some good beat downs. I know the exhaustion, the clumsiness, the pain, the adrenaline rush, the heightening of the senses. I also trained for and went to war–even had a couple of moments while on mission where I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out.
I did well in those times. I was steady as a stone.
For the fun that the Cracked article pokes at people in dire circumstances, there is hope to keep one’s head. Even when faced with overwhelming and terrifying circumstances, the human spirit is pretty resilient. It takes a quiet ego and some exercises to keep from panicking, but people can overcome quite a lot.
Also helped that I was cool with the baby Jesus.
September 11, 2001.
I was a part of a drama troupe in college. We had arrived on campus a couple of weeks before the other students so that we could read through mountains of skit scripts and formulate our show.
The six of us had sequestered ourselves in an out-of-the way rehearsal room near some faculty offices. On 9/11, we were finishing up our reading sessions. There were few students on campus, as the term hadn’t started.
So on that morning, we were already busy reading and joking. Our faculty advisor called. “Check out the TV. Someone flew a plane into the world trade center,” he said and hung up.
We didn’t think much of it. “A Cessna? Like a small, prop plane?” we wondered. Reminded us of the small plane someone had flown into the White House a little while before.
A few minutes later he called again, “Stop what you’re doing and get to a TV. I’m serious.”
We did. We rushed over to the nearby cafeteria building. TVs were on and several people were huddled around in the largely empty building. Like most people that day, our lives were forever changed.
About a year later, in August, I was on tour with the same drama troupe. We were at a picnic in an area of New England. There were several children sitting outside, flipping through a 9/11 memorial coffee table book. They were making fun of the pictures, talking about how silly the men looked in their firefighting gear, how silly the people looked as they ran down the street with ashen faces. They laughed and laughed.
And I remember being bothered by that. I remember thinking, ‘You kids shouldn’t laugh about that. You should show some respect.’ I did say, “That is something we don’t joke about,” but didn’t make a big deal of it. They were kids.
Soon after my time with the troupe was done, I joined the military. I served my years and went to war. Every September, we would rouse ourselves and remember, giving tribute to the 3,000 lives lost that day, steeling ourselves toward our larger cause.
But as the years go on, 9/11, like any other commemorative day, will fade.
Oh certainly WE won’t forget. We lived through it. It affected us deeply. We can picture ourselves, where we were standing, what we were thinking. For many, it influenced life changes. For many, it involved losing friends, burying them on foreign or domestic shores. WE will never forget.
But as the years go on, 9/11, like any other commemorative day, will become a historical footnote.
People who weren’t born then, or who were too young to truly feel the day’s effects, will learn about it in school, tie ribbons to such-and-such or attend a ceremony. But it’s not the same.
I can’t know what it felt like to have heard about the shooting of JFK, I can see it in documentaries. I can’t know what it felt like to hear about the attack on Pearl Harbor, I can only hope that a film director can properly capture the day’s meaning…or in the case of Michael Bay, endure as he turns the “day of infamy” into a PG-13 love story with popular starlets.
These days lose their potency. Because it is the doom of man to forget.
There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. — Ecclesiastes 1:11
Memory, like all things, decay. It’s a part of the natural cycle. We forget our loves, our hurts, the joys of simple things. We grow tired of our favorite dishes, of hearing stories read to us, of seeing sunrises, of our collection of movies, the patterns of our furniture. We constantly want new things, new experiences.
As the years march on, fewer and fewer will remember. Bumper stickers will fade and peel. Fewer companies will put out commemorative videos or change their profile pictures. There will be fewer FB posts. Kids will fuss at having to stand still for the moments of silence. Emails will go out, telling employees they must attend the nearby ceremony, so the department ‘has a good showing.’
It reminds me of the lyrics to a song written about WWI:
So now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glory
I see the old men, all tired stiff and sore
The weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
There are new Playstations. There’s a new season of Game of Thrones. New presidents come around. New policies enrage or enliven us. There’s a new phone. People gather together to give respect to days of memorial, but it’s not with the same intensity and passion of younger anniversaries. People move on.
And, you know, that’s okay.
Because it’s also a source of strength. It’s perseverance. It’s optimism, perhaps unrealized. It’s hope in the future. It’s the ability to try again—to defend again, to build again.
Some might say, “Yes, but if we forget, won’t we be doomed to repeat our mistakes? Won’t history repeat itself?”
Ask some of your historian friends, history is repeating itself. We do repeat our mistakes.
Yes, it is the doom of man to forget.
However, it is the boon of man to persevere.
And Americans, especially, as beloved or hated as we may be, are known for this spirit of perseverance, unbounded courage, innovation and hope. It’s why people historically have flocked to our shores. It’s why people historically have built lives here, despite poor circumstances.
It’s why, even with the fading of the embers of the passions from 9/11, I don’t despair.
I’ll take my place in time, make my stands, say my words. I’ll let who I am be who I was.
And life will continue.
I will not forget.