Tag Archive | courage

Everybody has a plan…until they get hit

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.

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We will always forget

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.

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The stifling quagmire of fear

Growing up in church pews, some kids would have questions or ideas concerning religion. We were usually told to pipe down, lest we might get something wrong. The whole system seemed built on the idea that it was better to be safe and within the bounds of legalism, where everything was in neat little boxes, than to be away from the herd. People were frankly terrified every time a young mind tried to break free. There would be all sorts of hellfire stories sent around to scare everybody into compliance.

The fear of the unknown—of being possibly incorrect in some small way—the fear of not being 100 percent absolutely sure about the stability of every step in life. It was suffocating.

In 2000, when I worked with some friends to start up a film business, pushing out in new territory, we were told to pipe down. We might get something wrong, they said. They were afraid for us all. They were looking out for us. We, being young and stupid, needed to learn the fear, they said through their attitudes. The fear would tell us when something wasn’t right, like how deer perk up and freeze in terror at every sound.

And it was this fear, programmed into us at instinctual and social levels, induced by the threat of something unknown, which kept us in line. By dragging each other down, we could stay together. Anyone who tried to leave was branded as some sort of traitor, putting the safety of the herd at risk. It is this fear that kills innovation.

In the mid-2000s, when many in the military advocated blogging as a way to communicate more freely with families while deployed, we were told to pipe down. We may have been out too far. People were afraid of being wrong—that someone somewhere might get called into an office. They would have to “appear before the man” or be called out “on the carpet.” In that office was a predator, usually wearing stars or the rank of a bird of prey. They said we should learn the fear—stay safe, not rock the boat.

In 2007, when advocating for curriculum changes at the Defense Information School, I ran across the same thing. In 2008, when pushing NATO SHAPE, same thing. In 2009 at various government agency meetings or workgroups, same thing. People were paralyzed with the fear. It was this fear that kept everyone safely munching on the meadow grass.

And even now in the new job, there are people advocating caution—not to try that change thing. There was an order to things after all, they say. I still had to learn how this place had rules and quaint little boxes of how and why things are done.

There is this fear that if someone strays outside of the self-imposed thought boundaries, he/she will immediately be snatched up and devoured by an angry boss.

This is BS too, by the way. More on that in a sec.

What’s with the skittishness? What opposition, clad in armor, pointy sticks or things that shoot, has ever been subdued by someone cowering in the shadows? What obstacle has ever been conquered through fear?

When I say, “Let’s try this,” it’s not out of recklessness. It’s not out of some effort to throw others to the wolves. There are no wolves, actually. And if there are, we too are wolves if we choose to be. I mean, I don’t see how the secret of success at my job—how those around me “in the know,” can be right by running and hiding whenever there’s a snag. Does that work in other areas of business? Hell no. Does that work in relationships?

So, why do people think it works in innovation? I don’t get this fear I’m supposed to learn.

I’ve been in trouble before. I’ve had my ass chewed by every rank from E-1 to O-6 (parents of high school athletes are a journalist’s bane). I’ve been in big trouble before, and guess what, the boss didn’t shoot me. He/she didn’t disembowel me.

At worst, in cases where I was wrong, I learned from my mistake and grew. At best, in cases where I was honestly trying to improve something, I was told to watch it. But, see? The thing was my bosses in those situations knew I was trying something new. They would applaud me for attempting to be innovative, believe it or not.

Hell, in some cases when working through government policy and best practices, my bosses told me and others that they would rather us swing for the fences and miss than constantly go for the bunt. I was personally told this by my assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the Army chief of staff, and my chief of public affairs.

And I take those episodes to heart, those times when faced with that supposed ravenous, potentially angry boss, I didn’t get devoured. I’ve never been fired for attempting process improvement. I’ve never been fired for trying to improve the organization.

But what “if,” some say? I have people here too scared to read a blog at work. “They” are watching, these people say. “They” will crack down on anyone who goes to websites, even if it’s directly tied to work. “They” will get you fired.

“I know of a person who was let go because he was on a social media site at work,” someone told me the other day.

“Really?” I asked. “No other extenuating circumstances?”

“No! That’s why we can’t use social media at work. It’s a policy.”

“I’ve looked for this policy. I don’t see it.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Saying it’s true doesn’t make it true.”

I had an instructor back in my Army training days who told a story, straight out of a forwarded email/chain letter. It was the one about the banana/cactus that had spider eggs inside it, which exploded and shot baby spiders everywhere. It’s bogus, look it up on an urban legend site. Yet, this instructor said it happened to her grandmother. As if saying so made it true.

It was supposed to be funny, but highlights an interesting phenomenon. We enable fear. We try to spread it to others. Not about spiders (scary, though!), but about questioning things.

Don’t do it! I know someone who went outside of the meadow and they were eaten!

Really? Eaten?

YES! I knew the person. It’s true! Swear to X!

Ah, since you swear, I’ll cease all thought on the subject. Since you’re sure we’re still herbivores, stuck in some meadow prison, I’ll never try to leave.

Now, I’m not trying to re-start some stupid “Be the ball, Danny!” or “I am a wolfpack” saying, but I sure as hell am tired of people trying to keep me as some frightened Bambi in the woods. Screw that. I’m also tired of people saying “no,” not because of any sort of reason, but because of The Fear! Yup. Screw that too.

I’ll make everybody a deal. If I ever get fired for diligently striving for process improvement or sincerely advocating for change to improve an organization, I’ll shut up and munch on some grass. Until then, I’ll keep howling at the moon or whatever pithy saying we can roll this post up with and get going.

Word.

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