Today I watched a video of a young man speaking at a press conference about his experience of being attacked by a mountain lion.
I wanted to trade places with him. He had been part of something real, and I wanted to feel what he felt.
For that brief moment of his life, when his arm was locked in the jaw of the big cat, he could only think about one thing. One pure thing. Not his cellphone. Not his car insurance. Not the Kardashians.
Another video. Another day. A bird strikes the engine of a man’s ultralight airplane. The tone of the engine changes and smoke billows out. His wife is in the seat behind him. He tells her he’s going to set it down in the fields below. She is not shrieking hysterically. They are both calm. Soon, the plane thumps its way roughly through the soybean crop. They come to a stop and they are alive.
In both stories, the people involved demonstrated something like bravery, maybe involuntary bravery. They had no choice but to use their fight response. There was no flight option available to them. I think some people are at their bravest in these involuntary situations. I think I am one of those people.
The sad part for me is that those types of situations make up less than a fraction of a percent of an entire life.
For me, my flight or flight response would kick in at the office. Deadlines. Emails. Tough Conversations. The stress would mount. I would feel the bile rising up in my throat. My chest would get tight.
I would zone out. Stare at the computer screen. Take a walk. Drink some water. Sit in the washroom and cry. Nothing helped. Inevitably, I would quit my job. I would choose flight over fight.
Last week a man was walking toward me brandishing an axe. I saw the axe and I assessed a potential threat. I played out a scenario in my head of how I would dodge his swing, get low, take him out at the knees, get his axe, and possibly chop his balls off. The situation was involuntary and there was little time to act, so I felt brave. I felt ready.
How can someone be brave in a life-threatening situation, but shiver and shake and cry for his momma in a seemingly innocuous situation (like too many deadlines at work)?
I think it mostly has to do with guilt.
At work, I would always feel a lot of guilt. Guilt that I’m not performing well enough. Guilt that I’m not taking enough work home with me. If I approach a task in this way, I might let this person down, but if I take a different approach, I might let that person down. Guilt. If I skip this task to go to a meeting now, I might have to work late and then my wife will be mad. Guilt. My work life is interfering with my kids’ life, my social life, my sex life. Guilt.
All the different work-life balance scenarios can weigh heavily on some people. People like me. People who prefer concrete tasks and think in black and white can freeze up because of all the decision making required. And they will feel guilt. Guilty that they are too much of a fucked up loser to just go into work and get the job done. After all, that’s what all the successful people in their lives are telling them to do. They’re telling them how easy it is just to go to work and make money.
How would they act if they were on a plane being hijacked? Would they turtle-up and hide, or would they take action? For me, I don’t know how I would handle the fear unless I was in that situation, but I know one thing about the fear. It would be different than the fear I feel at the office. It would be different than a fear of failure. It would be a pure fear. A fear of something real.
And there would be no guilt. The motherfucker doing the hijacking will have made it crystal clear where he stands. The inrush of adrenaline would be balanced by the simplicity of the scenario. The responsibility in my day-to-day life is so confusing and convoluted compared to the clarity of a bad guy vs. a good guy.
That’s why I fully believed Mark Wahlberg when he said this in reference to one of the flights on 9/11:
If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have went down like it did. There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, ‘OK, we’re going to land somewhere safely, don’t worry.’
I believe him. I don’t think he needed to apologize for saying that.
Oh, and the guy brandishing the axe? That was just the school bus driver. He was using it to chip the ice away from the sidewalk in front of the steps of his bus. I mean, come on, I live in Canada. I’m more likely to be attacked by the mountain lion from story #1 than an axe murderer.