The Weird and the Strange


Some people are weird, some people are strange, and some people are just different. What’s the difference? One of the best ways to define a relative term like weird is to define what it is not. It is not, for the purpose of this discussion, strange. The term strange, by our arbitrary definition, concerns those affected by a more natural malady. Through no fault of their own, they have had a variance inflicted upon them that they cannot escape, and nothing they do will repair it. We don’t define this separation to be nice, though we do deem it mean-spirited to mock, insult, or denigrate those people that arrived at their differences in a natural manner. We don’t create this separation so that our readers may consider us more understanding, wonderful, or compassionate, but we do deem those that would go out of their way to poke fun at the strange to be lacking in basic compassion. We also don’t want to leave the reader with the impression that we might be more normal, or more intelligent, than the subjects we will discuss. We design this arbitrary separation to provide a clarification on any confusion that might exists between those that had no choice in the matter, and those that choose to be weird through the odd decisions they make in life.

Being weird is a choice. 

Some say that Psychology is a comprehensive study of the choices we make. In that vein, it is our assumption that most weird people choose to be weird, follow weird paths, or believe in weird things, and we give ourselves license to mock those decisions. It is our belief, however, that no one chooses to be strange.

We will not afford weird people the same lubricated gloves that we will the strange. Weird people have made their choices, and those choices subject them to a degree of illustrative ridicule that a nicer, more wonderful writer –say, from the squishy and indecisive school of thought– would qualify to soften their conclusions. Some of us are as weird as those we mock, some of us are different, some of us are normal, and some of us are weird, and strange.

My dad did everything he could to guide me to a more normal path. He corrected my weird ideas with sensible, normal lines of thought. “That isn’t the way,” was something he said so many times, and in so many ways, that most view my refusal to accept his norms as rebellion. There were so many fights, arguments, and debates in our household that no observer could escape it without thinking that it was, at least, a combustible atmosphere. Before we explore the ways in which the old man was strange, I would like to take a moment to thank my dad for the effort he put into trying to make me normal. I’ve met the exaggerated forms of weird, and those that ascribe to the unusual thoughts, that I play around with, as their truth. Most of those people lead chaotic lives, and some of them are a little scary.

My dad was, at the very least, abnormal. Some would say kooky, and others might say he was an odd duck. In the frame we’re creating here though, he was strange. Either he was born with certain deficiencies, or they were a result of self-inflicted wounds. Whatever the case was, he was different from those around him. He wanted people to perceive him as a normal man. It was an effort for him. He didn’t want his children to have to endure the outsider status he had to endure for much of his life. I rebelled to that, because I couldn’t see his efforts for what they were.

I still like to dance in the flames of the weird, but once the lights come up I’m as normal now, and as boring, as everyone else. As hard as my dad tried to force normalcy on me, however, he couldn’t control the impulses I had to watch, read, and listened to artistic creations that glorified life outside the norm. Weird things were out there, and I knew it. I pursued these ideas with near wanton lust.

When I left my dad’s normal home and ventured out into a world outside the realm of his influence, I became attracted to weird, oddball philosophy. I found the information they presented me so intoxicating that I had trouble keeping it in the bottle.

I have had normal people peppered throughout my life, and I prefer their company in the long-term, but I found myself eager to invite challenging, weird ideas into my life for a brief stay. Their brief stay would present me with different and weird ideas of thinking, weird platitudes, and oddball mentalities that shook the contents in my bottle a little bit more. I needed to know what made them tock (as opposed to the ticks I knew in my normal world). I became obsessed with the abnormal to find out what made them different, or if they were, and I had to deal with the friends telling me that I should be dismissing these people on the basis that they were weird. I couldn’t, I said, not until I had digested all that they had to offer.

A Piece of Advice to the Young Ones

If there are any young minds reading this, engaged in a similar, passionate pursuit of all that falls under the abnormal umbrella, I want to stress one thing before we go any further. Pursue the life of a freak, become that rebel that makes every square in the room uncomfortable, violate every spoken and unspoken rule of our culture, and become that person everyone in the room regards as an oddball. Before doing that, however, you may want to consider learning everything about the conventional rules that you plan to spend the rest of your life violating. Learning the rules gives one a proper foundation, from which to violate. I know the rules are boring, and everyone knows them, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my tenure as a rebel, and from my discussion with other rebels, a rebel needs to know the rules better than the square. The violation of rules comes with its own set of rules, for those that hope to violate in a constructive and substantive manner. Failure to learn the rules, and the proper violation of them, will allow those that set the rules to dismiss the rebel as one that doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and a rebel without a cause.

A Rebel Without a Cause makes for great fodder in a movie where the moviemakers manipulate the extraneous conditions, and players to enhance the qualities of the main character, but in real life there are situations and forces that rebel with conviction cannot control. There are people that will hit you with scenarios for which you’ll be unprepared, and a failure to study the rules from every angle possible, will lead everyone to forget the rebel’s argument soon after they make it.

James Dean was A Rebel Without a Cause, though, and James Dean was cooler than cool. For ninety minutes, he was, and with all of extraneous conditions and side characters portraying the perfect contradictory behavior that would define the James Dean character’s rebellion, James Dean was cool. Cooler than cool. In real life, however, a rebel cannot manipulate his extraneous conditions and players to enhance their character. In that environment, the extraneous players consider a rebel without a cause, a rebel without substance. They may regard him as uninteresting, after the initial flash of intrigue with his rebelliousness subsides. My advice would be to listen to those squares that are so normal they make you throw up in your mouth a little, for they may teach you more about what you’re rebelling against than those that feed into your confirmation bias.

My aunt was a bore. She told me things about life that bored the ‘fill in the blank ‘out of me with her preachy presentations on “Good and honest living.” She didn’t know where it was at, as far as I was concerned. I wanted to step into that “Do what you feel” rock and roll persona that left carnage in its wake. I debated her point for point. I knew my rock and roll lifestyle well. My aunt was not much of a debater. She knew her “Good and honest living” principles, but she could not debate me point for point. She had poor presentation skills, by comparison, and she was overweight and unattractive. Those in the entertainment fields had excellent presentation skills. They were attractive and thin, and they all had excellent jaw lines. They confirmed all of the beliefs I had about life. Life should be easy, judgment free, and fun. It shouldn’t involve the moral trappings of what is right and what is wrong, and as long as no one gets hurt, a person should be able to do what you feel like doing. Viewing all of this in retrospect, however, I now realize that the boring, pedantic, obese, and unattractive people taught me ten times as much about life as any of the entertainers. The entertainers were just better at packaging their presentations.

The crux of my rebellion was that I wanted to be a weird guy that made the mainstream uncomfortable. Those that did something different turned me on, and all the grownups that surrounded me were the same. My dad vied for the same, and he wanted the same for me, but no matter how hard he tried to make me normal, I wanted to explore the abbie normal side of humanity.

“You actually want to be weird?” a friend asked me. “People don’t want to be weird. They either are, or they aren’t.” 

Weirdness should be natural and organic, was the import of her message. It should be a birthright. The weird intend this to be a condemnation for those of us that aren’t weird in a natural, and fundamental, sense. It was an ‘how dare you try to be one of us, if you’re not’ reaction to those that hold the organic nature of being weird as a birthright. She regarded this as equivalent to a person that wears bifocals to look sexier when they don’t have to wear them, an act that ticks off those that are required to wear glasses.

Therefore, I’m not weird in a natural and organic sense. My dad raised me in a manner that forced me to accept the norms, and I’m going to take a moment out of this piece to say something I didn’t say to him when he was alive: “God bless you Dad for forcing a foundation of normalcy down my throat.”

This person that condemned me for being audacious in my attempts to play around in what she claimed her birthright, was weird in a natural and fundamental sense, but she was also sad in a natural and fundamental sense, and miserable, and angry about the manner in which life had trampled upon her. Anyone that knew her, or even held a simple conversation with her, would walk away knowing that chaos had dominated much of her life, and as a result she was well-known for being so desperate as to seek refuge in the controlled substances she found to ease that pain.

I realized through this friend, and all of the other weird characters that have graced my life, that there was weird and there was weird. There was the weird that is fun, a little obnoxious, and entertaining in a manner that tingles the area of the brain that enjoys stepping outside the norm, and there is the borderline strange, weird that is a little scary when one takes a moment to spelunk through their dark caves and caverns of their mind.

***

As evidenced by my weird friend professing a sense of superiority over those not weird, in a more organic manner, some of us will attempt to gain whatever edge we can find against those around us. Was she weirder than I was? “Who cares?” you and I might say in unison. She did. It may never have occurred to her –prior to our conversation on this topic– that the idea of being weird was a cudgel she could use to attain some form of superiority, but for that particular conversation, it was for her, and she didn’t appear to feel the slight bit unusual for doing so. It appeared, in fact, to be vital to her that I acknowledge that she had me on this topic. She was weird, and I was trying to be weird. Who tries to be weird? Phony people. That’s who. Check, check, check. She wins.

The interesting aspect of this conversation, as it pertains to the subject of superiority and inferiority, is how long did she search for that point of superiority? How many topics did we cover in our numerous conversations before she was able to find one aspect of her personality in which she had some superiority? If either of these questions wreaks of ego on my part, let’s flip it around and ask what drove this impulse to use organic weirdness as a form of superiority? I had many conversations with this woman, and I never saw this competitive side of her before. She thought she had me on this one strange, or weird, topic.

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You say What I Think, not what you May Randomly Do


universeSome of the times our world, our universe, makes no sense at all.  It’s too random, and the random is impossible to grasp.  It can be overwhelming when an astronomer welcomes us to their understanding of the universe, but if we take out all the anecdotal information the well-informed astronomer details for us, it can all make sense.  There are patterns out there, everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.  The universe is built on mathematical equations.  It is built on gravitational pulls and weight and near absolute order.  Our political system is also built in much the same manner, save for the order, but if we pull out the random thoughts and words of individual politicians, we can understand our political system a little better, if we understand the political platforms and political action committees that drive these individual politicians.  Everyone we speak with has motivations and tendencies, and if we study human psychology long enough we can use our past experience to understand future behaviors of people from a specific race, a specific region of the world, and a religious affiliation.  If we study these psychological patterns long enough, and hard enough, we may be able to read each other’s minds.  We can know what we we’re all thinking and we can assign that mode of thought to the future actions of any speaker.  We can figure the world out better if we can just assign it the proper mathematical/psychological equation and pattern.  Or can we?

“I think we have cockroaches,” a friend of mine said to a black person in regard to their workplace.

“Why are you telling me this?” the black person asks. “Is it because I’m black?  You think I know something more about cockroaches because I’m black?  Or do you think that, based on the fact that I’m black, that I should be the one to clean it up?”

“Did I tell her that, because I’m a racist?” this friend asked me.  She told me that she hadn’t told anyone else in the firehouse about the cockroaches, and she had no idea why she singled the black woman out about it.  My friend was worried.  She and the black woman had been good friends prior to the comment, but her comment put a strain on their relationship.  My friend worried that they would never be good friends again based on her “racist” comments.

We all think we know what’s going on in another person’s head.  We think that past experience dictates what current motivations are.  We can know what everyone is thinking based upon our random sampling of the world.  Is there a margin of error in our thinking, of course, but margins of error usually rank no higher than five percent in any political poll taken, so studying human behavior in our daily lives can’t be much different.  What if we are wrong though?  What if we have no idea what other people are thinking?  Would we rather make changes in the way we approach people, or does the satisfaction we gain from our understanding of our random sampling provide us such a degree of control over the random that we need it to remain sane?

In his book You are Not so Smart, Gerald McRaney cites a psychology experiment in which one person taps out a song on a desktop, and the listener tries to figure out the song they’re tapping.  The tapper is not allowed to hum or signal the listener in anyway.  They are to pick out a song that everyone involved is familiar with, say The National Anthem, and they are to tap it over and over, until the listener gets it.  In the course of this experiment, some tappers got frustrated with their listeners, and they tapped slower and slower, until their listeners got so frustrated with the process they quit.  Were the listeners just plain stupid the tappers being to wonder.  How could they not get The National fricking Anthem?  Are they unpatriotic, do they simply not know The National Anthem when they hear it, or are they just not paying enough attention?  The truth was that these listeners simply didn’t know what the tappers were thinking.  We all attempt to communicate to one another in a way that is crystal clear to us, but our listeners don’t get it.  It’s frustrating, but it clues us into the fact that most people don’t know what we’re thinking.

Have you ever tried giving directions to a person that is totally unfamiliar with your town?  As a hotel front desk clerk, I learned very quickly how difficult it can be to give someone directions.  I was born and raised in this town I describe, and I know it like the back of my hand, but I learned very quickly that this was more of a disadvantage than an advantage when giving directions to a person who has never been to my town.  After a few unsuccessful and very frustrating trial runs, I learned to try to put myself in their frame of mind and give directions from that point.  You don’t know how often you give instructions and directions from your point of view, until you’ve done it hundreds of times, and prepared yourself for incoming calls or questions from people totally unfamiliar with it.  What helped me progress to this point, more than anything else, was the refrain these people would give when asking for directions: “Now, you have to treat me like a total idiot here.”  These were usually frequent travelers that said this, and they had presumably been given directions hundreds of times.  They knew the mentality I was going to have to have if I was going to properly guide them to the hotel.  They knew how their mind worked, and they taught me how to deal with them in that context.

A wife tells a husband she knows exactly what he was thinking when he said something that she regarded as a transgression.  The husband knows that it was not what he meant at all, but he relents when he considers that she might know him better than he knows himself.  An online computer company gives their employees sensitivity training on personal emails sent to other employees.  Their primary warning: “Your recipient does not know what’s going on in your head.  Every personal email that you send can be read ten different ways by ten different people based on their individual, life experiences.”

Conservatives mount a defense against hate-crime legislation based on the fact that we can’t know what was going on in the assailant’s mind.  We can know that the assailant killed the victim based on the evidence put forth, but proving that they did it with a specific motivation is almost impossible to prove in most cases.  As much as we intelligent beings hate to admit it, we know very little about what goes on in other human minds, and what we don’t know we make up by assigning them our thoughts.

We see thought patterns and speech patterns everywhere we go and in every person we encounter.  When someone fails to follow our pattern, we give them our pattern and predict what they’re going to say based on that.  It gives us pleasure to know their pattern, and it gives us some semblance of control over the powerlessness we otherwise feel in the face of the random.

We look up into a night-time sky, and in it we initially see what appears to be a random mess of little lights.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s too random.  We shut down.  Why try understanding anything that has no order to it?  When it’s pointed out to us that there is a pattern to the little lights, we find pleasure in spotting the big dipper and a little dipper.  We suddenly feel the power of categorization and organization at our fingertips, and it is no longer so overwhelming.

When we see a child act in a disorderly fashion, we provide them our knowledge of what we consider the orderly system.  One of the reasons we do this is so that their world is not so confusing and random to them.  We remember how miserable we were when the world made no sense to us, so we attempt to lessen their misery by presenting them with some of the facts of we learned.  When our child proceeds to do something random that might cause them harm, we don’t understand this.  “Why would you do that?” we ask genuinely confused by their regression into the random.  “I’ve already taught you this,” we say with exhausted frustration.  We’ve known this child for so long, and we’ve taught them our order so many times that we’re exhausted with effort.  The answer is that it’s not necessarily their progress that we thought we witnessed, it’s ours.  We accidentally assigned them our order and our thought patterns in their presumed progress, and we thought they grasped it.

Why would a child purposefully harm themselves when they know better based on what we’ve taught them?  The answer is that children don’t understand the ramifications of their actions.  They don’t understand our order yet.  They’ve heard it a number of times, but they don’t understand it on the level we do.  Some studies have suggested that humans don’t fully come to grips with the ramifications of their actions, until they’re roughly eighteen years of age.  Impossible, we think.  When we were eighteen, we had a full grasp on the consequences of our actions.  If we think that, we’re usually assigning our current brains to our young brains.  It seems impossible, I know, but science is suggesting that we assign our current brains to our past brains all the time to help us make sense of who we are today.  We usually think, based upon our current mindsets, that we’ve been pretty consistent throughout our lives.  In truth, we’ve made huge leaps of progress in our understanding of the world and our progress in it, but we accidentally expect children to make the same leaps we thought our young brains made when we were their age.  When they go back and do that random thing again, we view them as being purposefully stubborn and rebellious to what we’ve already taught them.

When we see a male penguin have sexual relations with another male penguin, we assign our motivations to them.  That penguin must be gay.  If a human male has sex with another human male, they’re gay, and one plus one always equals two.  We know their motivations, like we know our own motivations.  The question of whether or not the idea of gay exists in the penguin world is a concept that doesn’t compute to us.  The very idea that penguins would have random sex with other penguins just to have sex, regardless of the other party’s gender, is just too foreign a concept for us to deal with.  The order that we require extends downward to our children and outward to the other beings in the animal kingdom.  It all has to make sense to us on a certain level.  There is no random.

We assign characteristics and thought patterns to groups, because it helps us make some sense of the variations in their psychology, and it helps us make sense of our own psychology.  We have an “OH!” moment when we think we spot a pattern.  We have a “That makes sense now!” moment, and we feel better about the order of the universe and our understanding of it, regardless if this pattern truly exists or not.

A person randomly comes up to us and says that there are cockroaches in the firehouse.  Why did they pick us, in such a seemingly random fashion?  If we’re a woman, and they’re a man, it makes sense to us that we should be insulted because past experience with the men of our lives dictates that they want us to clean it up.  We know the patterns of most men, and we use it to claim offense.  Even if they meant no offense, and they didn’t intend for us to clean up anything, they know the patterns of most men too, and they know that they’re a man, so they think that they may have been thinking that on some level they’re not aware of.  If we’re black and they’re white, we’ve been down this road before.  We know that they think blacks are more familiar with cockroaches, based on the stereotype that blacks used to live with cockroaches.  Otherwise, it would make no sense to us that someone would just walk up to us and say such a random thing, so we categorize and organize them in our brain and project our thoughts into theirs.  What doesn’t factor into our equation is that some of the times the world is random, because the random is impossible to grasp.

Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias


“Didn’t you hear the old, Native American woman say something evil lurks in the lake?” one of the great looking people on shore screams. Dougie ignores them, apparently unaware of the golden rule of modern cinema: Always listen to Native Americans, especially if they’re old, and they speak in hallowed tones. “You’ve gone too far Dougie!” the great looking people on shore continue to shriek. “Come back!”

“C’mon ya’ chickens!” Dougie says backstroking leisurely. “It’s fun, and there’s nothing out here!”

The music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the speakers of our movie theater. A subtle roar follows. We tense up. We grip the armrests so tight that we flex our forearms. We’re joining the gorgeous people on shore with mental screams sent to Dougie to get out of the water. The great looking people on shore grow hysterical, screaming that there are swirling waters.

“Dougie please!”

“Ah, shut it!” everybody’s favorite clown, Dougie, says waving off the warnings. 

The trouble is the actor that plays Dougie is unattractive and chubby. Those of us that have watched movies for decades, and know casting, know Dougie’s in trouble.

The monster roars up to an impossible height. Dougie looks up at it, and he finally begins screaming. The monster takes its time, so we can see the full breadth of its horror. It gnashes its teeth a little, it swivels its head about, and it looks menacingly at Dougie. Dougie continues to look up, and he continues to scream, as the monster lowers onto him and bites his head off. The idea that this scene took a whole thirty seconds leaves those of us that have watched too many horror movies in a squirming state.

Why didn’t he just move, is a question horror movie aficionados have asked for decades. Why did he sit there and scream for thirty seconds? We could live with the fact that the monster would’ve moved through the water quicker than Dougie, had Dougie attempted to swim away. It’s more aquatic than Dougie. We could’ve also lived with the fact that Dougie probably didn’t have much of a chance the moment he jumped into the water, but as a person that gets titillated by horror movies, I would like to see their victims do a little more to survive.

When I later learned that actors have to stay on their mark, I was a little less disgusted with the actors who played Dougie types. I still want them to move, but I realized that they receive instructions from the director to stay on the spot the director designated for the decapitation scene. This clichéd scene may strike horror in some, but I would venture to say that most of those people are not quite thirty. For the rest of us, it’s just plain irrational that a person wouldn’t move, or do anything and everything they can to survive.

Author David McRaney argues that not only are Dougie’s reactions normal, but they are closer to the truth than anything we horror movie aficionados call for. The book, You Are Not so Smart, suggests that the one detail of our story that is incorrect, in many stories similar to Dougie’s, is the screaming.

Those of us that are casual, non-psychology types, believe that there are two basic reactions every human will have in the face of catastrophic, chaotic moments: action and non-action, or those that act and those that choke. Those that act may also be broken down into two categories: those that fight to save themselves, in a selfish manner, and those that act in a heroic fashion to save others, but casual, non-psychology types insist there are but two reactions to such situations.

McRaney argues that there is a third course of action, and casual, non-psychology types will be more apt to view this course of action as little more than an extension of choking. Psychologists call it fear bradycardia. The difference between fear bradycardia and choking is that a victim of fear bradycardia experiences a heart deceleration, as opposed to an acceleration that may cause one to fumble about and select an incorrect reaction. A victim of fear bradycardia experiences a freezing, or an attentive immobility. Fear bradycardia is an involuntary, automatic instinct that often occurs in moments that contain unprecedented aspects of chaos and horror for the unprepared.

Put succinct, fear bradycardia is the idea that a person, a Dougie, will stop moving and hope for the best. This psychological state occurs when we encounter a moment of unprecedented, abject horror. It is based on the idea that in those moments, most of us will not know what to do, and we will freeze in place with the hope that that moment will go away, and we won’t be forced to decide what to do, or how to act, in anyway. It is an automatic and involuntary instinct in all of us. Some refer to this state as tonic immobility, but no matter the name, it falls under the umbrella of a term psychologists call the normalcy bias.

McRaney details several incidents in which people experienced fear bradycardia. He lists an F5 tornado that occurred in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, a plane crash in which the plane managed to get earthbound before exploding and killing everyone on impact, survivors of floods, and the Trade Center terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01.

According to some first responders, the one thing common to most survivors of such tragedies is that they go to a dream-like state. With their world falling down around them, and no one to shake them out of it, most survivors will shut down and go to a safe, more normal space in their minds where all of this horror isn’t occurring around them, and they aren’t being called upon to act in a manner that will result in their survival.

In the aftermath of the Trade Center terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, some first responders spoke of the calm evacuating survivors exhibited, and how most survivors followed instructions to allow for a safe exit. Some first responders said that the nature of these survivors saved lives. They suggested that the nature of this exit should be a model for future survivors, and first responders, to learn the proper evacuation process.

Other first responders agreed with the general sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order was so calm and quiet that it bordered on eerie. Very few survivors were screaming, they said, and though there wasn’t much room to sprint, very few added to the chaos by complaining about the slow, orderly exit, and even fewer attempted to find another way to get out of the buildings quicker.

Some of the first responders, cited by McRaney, spoke of the manner in which some survivors took a couple of extra, crucial moments to complete the log out procedures on their computers, before listening to the first responders; some gathered their coats, and others even engaged in mundane conversations with their cohorts on the way out.

What a bunch of idiots, those of us on the outside looking in may think, when reading that. If I were in that situation, I would be running. I might be crying, even screaming, and I may even knock the occasional little, old lady down in my departure, but I would do everything I could to get out. I don’t care what this pop psychologist says I’m all about survival brutha.

We’ve all watched such scenes in movies, and TV shows. We’ve all placed ourselves in the mind of the characters involved, and we’ve all done things a little different from them. We’ve all shouted things at our various screens when the Dougie characters just sit there as a monster nears them, and we all know how we would’ve reacted, but the central question of McRaney’s thesis is do we really know, or do we think we know? How prepared are we for a moment of unprecedented horror and catastrophe, and how much of what we think we know conflicts with the reality of what we really know?

“If you haven’t (experienced a worst case scenario firsthand),” writes McRaney. “You can never know how prepared you will be, and you can never know how you’ll react. The ideas of how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we might end up knowing the actual truth of these questions after it’s too late to rectify it.”

Shutting down computers, gathering coats and having mundane conversations are automatic and involuntary responses that occur because of this dream-like, normal state that we go to when it becomes clear that no amount of rationalizing will ever make this horrific and unprecedented moment of chaos, a normal moment. We shutdown to block out the flood of external stimuli that may otherwise cause us to panic.

“The people in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 had a supreme need to feel safe and secure,” McRaney writes. “They had a desire to make everything around them “go” normal again in the face of something so horrific that their brains couldn’t deal with it in a functional manner.”

As stated previous, most casual, non-psychology types would characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because you may not be freezing up out of panic. “It’s a reflexive incredulity” McRaney writes –attributing the term to an Amanda Ripley– “That causes you to freeze up in a reflexive manner. This reflexive incredulity causes you to wait for normalcy to return beyond the point where it’s reasonable to do so. It’s a tendency that those concerned with evacuation procedures– the travel industry, architects, first responders, and stadium personnel– are well aware of, and that they document this in manuals and trade publications.”

McRaney provides just such a list from a journal called “The International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters.” This entry lists the course of actions most of us will experience when we go through a chaotic catastrophe.

Interpret. You will attempt to define the incident that is occurring around you in terms that you are familiar. Doing so, will lead you to underestimating it.

One such incident to illustrate this, by contrast, was the “underwear bomber” incident. The successful thwarting of this planned terrorist attack was due, in part, to luck, but the expedient and resolute manner in which the passengers reacted to the incident was due, in part, to precedent. Thanks to the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, in other words, those heroic passengers lived with a post-9/11 mindset.

Save for those passengers on flight ninety-three, that managed to overtake the pilots piloting the plane to crash into the ground near Pittsburgh, one has to imagine that most of the passengers on the other flights, froze up with reflexive incredulity when the terrorists took control of the planes. They didn’t know a world where terrorists flew planes into buildings, and they were not prepared for the violent worst-case scenario the terrorists’ presence indicated.

The terrorists capitalized on this, whether they knew it or not, by informing the passengers that this was a simple hijacking, and once the terrorists got their money, it would all be over. Hindsight may lead us to believe that the passengers were naïve to believe this, but why wouldn’t they? One could also guess that the passengers believed this too, because they wanted to believe this. The alternative may have been too horrific for them to contemplate.

Information. You will seek information from those around you to see what they think of the incident. This may involve, as McRaney points out in other parts of the chapter, listening to radio and television, and any source of media that helps you come to terms with the incident.

Most of those on board flight ninety-three may not have been better equipped to handle a terrorist incident occurring on their plane, they were just better informed. The terrorists on board that flight made a strategic error of not understanding psychology well enough. They allowed the passengers to call their loved ones. Those loved ones redefined the norms of the passengers on ninety-three, by telling those passengers what they were witnessing on TV. Those passengers then informed other passengers, until all parties concerned defeated this reflexive incredulity acted in the manner they did.

According to reports, there was a great deal of discussion on flight ‘93. There was discussion among the passengers, relaying the reports they were hearing with others on the ground that prompted Todd Beamer to say, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!” They helped each other interpret what they were experiencing with the information they gleaned from those on the ground, and they used this information to prompt others to act.

Move. After doing all this, you will evacuate.

The sociologists, McRaney cites, say, “You are more prone to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps and are not informed of the severity of the issue.”  Failing to gain the necessary information leads to speculation and to the inevitable comparisons and contrasts of other incidents for which we are more familiar.

Men, in particular, have an almost imbedded desire to rationalize fear away. Fear, by its very nature is irrational, and most men feel it incumbent upon them to keep fear a rationalization away. How many times have you heard a man say, “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as a previous experience I once had?” 

The culprit they assign to unwarranted fear is hype. The type of hype, they will suggest, comes from the media and politicians. The media wants viewers and politicians want voters, so they pound horrific details home to keep you afraid and focused on them and their efforts to investigate and rectify. All of this is true, but it’s also true that the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01 was one of the most horrific to happen in our country.

We only add the political section of this discussion to illustrate the mindset of those that rationalize horror away. They do so to lighten the load such an incident could have on their minds if they didn’t deal with it in the manner they do. The problem arises when we face the type of horror we’ve rationalized for most of our life. At that point, they will fall back on what they know to normalize their incident in such a way as to help them deal with it in terms with which they are more familiar, until it becomes apparent that this incident is far worse than anything their rational mind could imagine.

To those that suggest that there is politics at play here, and that we should all start believing the hype of politicians, and media players, is a rationalization in and of itself. Most of us recognize that some media outlets, and politicians, have made their bones on promoting fear, but there are times when a little fear –an emotion that can initiate a need for awareness– could save your life.

For these reasons and others, it is crucial that a city facing an ensuing crisis, have their local media inundate us with reports concerning an impending storm, because the media needs to help us redefine our norm. It is also a reason, for those of us that make fun of our friends for paying attention to the stewardess’ instructions, to drop our macho façade and listen. We may also want to drop the pretense that we’re such frequent travelers that we’ve prepared ourselves for anything and get our normalcy redefined in preparation for what could go wrong.

Even with all the information McRaney provides, I still find it hard to believe that those movie scenes that depict the near-catatonic reactions a Dougie will display as a monster nears him, are closer to the truth than I am about how I will react. I live with the belief that a survivor instinct will kick in when I see a monster coming at my head, and that I will do whatever it takes to try to survive the incident, regardless if I am great looking, unattractive, or out of shape. That doesn’t mean, however, that I am going to be so afraid of appearing afraid that I will disregard the information that may help me avert disaster. We’ve all had some incidents in our lives that we call mini-disasters in the grand scheme of things, and most people have a decent batting average when it comes to reacting to them. Here’s to hoping that if our lives ever depend on our reactions that we don’t experience a fear bradycardia, a tonic immobility, a reflexive incredulity, or any of those normal bias tendencies that McRaney says are automatic and involuntary instincts among the unprepared that have lied to themselves for so long that they may rationalize themselves to death.