The Weird and the Strange

What is weird really? Who is weird? What is the difference between an individual that is weird, a person that is strange, and all of the variances that exist between those two exaggerated poles? One of the best ways to define a general and relative term like weird, is to define what it is not. It is not, for the purpose of this study, strange. The term strange, by our arbitrary definition, concerns those that were affected by a more natural malady. Through no fault of their own, they have had something inflicted upon them that they cannot undo, and nothing they do, in the future, will repair their separation from the norm. We don’t define this separation to be nice, though we do deem it mean-spirited to mock, insult, or denigrate those that arrived at their differences in a more natural manner. We don’t create this separation so that our readers may consider us more empathetic, 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 human compassion. This also is not an attempt, on our part, to leave the reader with the impression that we are more intelligent, more normal, or better than those that believe the strange should be mocked, ridiculed, and ostracized. This arbitrary separation is designed to provide a clarification against any confusion that might exist between those that had no choice in the matter, and those that choose to be weird through the decisions they have made in life.

George Grosz, Ghosts, 1934

George Grosz, Ghosts, 1934

Being weird is a choice. 

Psychology, it could be said, 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. A person does not, again by the arbitrary definition of the terms lined out here, choose to be strange.

Weird people will not be afforded the same lubricated gloves that the strange are in the pieces that follow this one, for the weird have made their choices, and those choices subject them to a degree of illustrative ridicule that a nicer, more wonderful writer –say, from a 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 just a little different, and some of us are normal and strange.

My dad did everything he could to lead me to a more normal path. He corrected my weird ideas with sensible, normal lines of thought. “That isn’t the way,” was a phrase used so many times in our household that my refusal to abide by his norms could be viewed 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. As the reader will see later, I am grateful for the effort he put into trying to make me as normal as possible, because I’ve met the exaggerated forms of weird, and those that ascribe to the unusual thoughts, that I play around with, and most of those people lead scary and chaotic lives.

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. He was either born with certain deficiencies, or they were a result of self-inflicted wounds. Whatever the case was, he was so different from those around him that he would have to fall into one of our two classifications. Being perceived as a normal man was a struggle for him, and 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 all that, because I didn’t view his efforts as a noble cause.

I still like to dance in the flames of the weird, but once the lights come up I’m as normal, and as boring, as everyone else. As hard as my dad tried to force me to be somewhat normal, however, he couldn’t control what I watched, what I read, and listened to, and all of the artistic creations I enjoyed that were outside the norm. Weird things were out there, and I knew it, and I pursued them 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 more attracted to the weird, oddball philosophy. I found the information they presented me so intoxicating that I had trouble keeping it in the bottle.

I had normal people littered throughout my life, and I preferred 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 ways of thinking, weird ideas, outlandish 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 a number of friends that inform me that I should be dismissing these people. I couldn’t, I said, until I had digested all that they had to offer.

A Rebel Without a Cause

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. There’s nothing wrong with being an outsider. An outsider can violate every rule of our culture, both spoken and unspoken, and become that greaser, with tattoos and spikes in your leather jacket, and an ever present snarl on your face. An outsider might want to consider breaking so many conventions that they become so unconventional as to attained freak status. Before doing so, I would suggest to those planning such an attack, spend some time learning the conventional rules that you plan to spend the rest of your life violating. Learning the rules provides a rule breaker a proper foundation, from which to violate. Every rebel thinks they know these rules –and they bore them– but most rebels don’t know them as well as they think. Violation of the rules comes with its own set of rules, if a rebel hopes 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 a rebel as someone that doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and their goal of undermining those rules will also be dismissed with ease. A rebel that fails to abide by these tenets of proper violation might even be deemed a rebel without a cause.

A Rebel Without a Cause makes for great fodder in a movie where all of the extraneous conditions, and players, can be manipulated to enhance the qualities of the main character, but in real life there are situations and forces that a real life rebel cannot control. There are people that will hit a rebel with scenarios for which they’ll be unprepared, and if they don’t study the rules from every angle possible, their whole argument will be forgotten soon after they make it.

But James Dean was A Rebel Without a Cause, the rebel that worships Hollywood, archetype rebels will say, and James Dean was cooler than cool. For ninety minutes he was, and with all of extraneous conditions and side characters being controlled to exhibit the perfect contradictory behavior that would define the James Dean character’s rebellion, James Dean was cool. Cooler than cool. In real life, however, where all of the extraneous conditions and players cannot be manipulated to enhance a rebel’s idealized characteristics, a rebel without a cause is often considered a rebel without substance, and he is disregarded as uninteresting after the initial flash of intrigue with their rebelliousness subsides. My advice would be to listen to those squares that are so normal they make a person throw up in their mouth a little, for they may teach a real-life rebel more about what they’re rebelling against than those that feed into their confirmation bias.

My aunt was a bore, and she told me things about life that bored the ‘you know what’ 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 lifestyle 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, we should all 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 based on the idea that I wanted to be a weird guy that made the mainstream uncomfortable. I was turned on by those that did something different, and all the grownups that surrounded me were the same. My dad vied for this sameness, 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.

A Weird Friend

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

The weirdness a person displays should be natural, was the import of her message. It should be a birthright. This was intended to be a condemnation for those of us that aren’t weird in a natural, and fundamental, sense that portray weird characteristics. My mistake may have been to discuss the idea of being openly. It isn’t customary to discuss being weird openly. It’s a private, often painful, state of being that has forced them to endure mockery and ridicule so often that even objective analysis of it can throw people off. It can lead those that may fear that they’re fundamentally weird to become so defensive that they have a ‘how dare you try to be one of us, if you’re not’ defensive reaction to those that they believe want to wear a weird mask in a manner somewhat equivalent to a person wearing eyeglasses just to look sexy when they don’t otherwise need to wear them.

So, I’m not weird in a natural and fundamental sense. My dad raised me in a manner that forced me to abide by 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 that could artificially ease her 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 a borderline strange for of weird that is a little scary when one takes the time to spelunk through their dark caves and caverns of their mind.

Being Weird as a Form of Superiority

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 me? “Who cares?” the reader and I might say in unison.  She did.  It may never have occurred to her –prior to our conversation on this topic– that being weird could be used as a cudgel for the purpose of attaining 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, weird, topic.

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 there’s a monster 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!”

DragonThe music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the speakers of our movie theater.  It is followed by a subtle roar.  We tense up.  We’re gripping the armrests so intensely that the muscles in our forearms are flexed.  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 their warnings. 

The trouble is the actor that plays Dougie is slightly unattractive and out of shape.  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 fact 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 wanted them to move, but I realized that they were instructed by 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 actually closer to the truth than anything we movie goers call for.  The book McRaney wrote is called You Are Not so Smart, and it basically states that the only aspect of such a scene that may be overdramatized is Dougie’s 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 act to selfishly save themselves and those that act in a heroic fashion to save others, but there are still only two basic reactions for casual, non-psychology types.

McRaney argues that there is actually a third course of action, and casual, non-psychology types will likely view this course of action as an extension of their idea of choking.  It is called fear bradycardia.  McRaney argues that while fear bradycardia may fall in the “choking” category, choking is a term that should be reserved for routine circumstances in which a person fails to act.  Fear bradycardia is an involuntary, automatic instinct that is likely to occur in moments that contain unprecedented aspects of chaos and horror for the unprepared.

Put succinctly, fear bradycardia is the idea that a person, a Dougie, simply stops moving and hopes for the best.  It is based on the idea that most of us are not accustomed to moments of abject horror in which our lives are truly on the line.  It is based on the idea that in those moments, most of us will not know what to do, and we will simply freeze in place with the hope that that moment will simply 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.  Fear bradycardia is also referred to as tonic immobility by some, but no matter what it’s called 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 simply shut down and go to a safe, more normal place 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 orderly fashion in which the survivors evacuated, and how they were grateful that people responded in such a fashion. These first responders said that the calm exit saved lives.  They suggested that the nature of this exit should be reported on, so future survivors would learn of the example these Trade Center evacuees set.

Other first responders agreed with the general sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order was so calm that it bordered on eerie.  Very few survivors were screaming, and though there wasn’t much room to sprint, very few added to the chaos by trying to find some 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 log safely out of 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, reading that.  If that were me, I can tell you I would be running.  I would probably be crying, even screaming, and I might even be knocking little, old ladies down, 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 seen scenes in movies, and TV shows, that depict such scenes, and we’ve all mentally placed ourselves in the mind of the characters involved, and we’ve all done things a little differently in our mind.  We’ve all shouted things at screens when the Dougies 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?

Do we really know how prepared we are for a moment of unprecedented horror and catastrophe?  Have we ever actually been involved in a worst case scenario in which our lives are on the line?  “If you haven’t,” writes McRaney, “you can never truly know how prepared you will be, and you can never truly know how you’ll react.  Our ideas of how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we’ll only find the actual truth after it’s too late to rectify it.”

Shutting down computers, gathering coats and having mundane conversations are automatic and involuntary responses that occur as a result 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.  It’s a shutdown mode we go to 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 previously stated, most casual, non-psychology types would characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because you’re not necessarily 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.  It’s a reflexive incredulity that 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 with, and in doing so, you will underestimate it.

One such incident that illustrated 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 could only be said to be an informed reaction.  Thanks to the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01, in other words, they had precedent.  They were informed of what could happen if they did nothing, for they lived, as we all live, in a post-9/11 world where such incidents have been introduced as something that could happen.

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 knowingly 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 also believed this, 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 weren’t necessarily 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 them what the loved ones were witnessing on TV.  Those passengers then informed other passengers, until all parties concerned were forced out of their reflexive incredulity, and that prompted them to act in the manner they did.

Again, from the reports we’ve had of flight ninety-three, there was a great deal of discussion in the aircraft, and with others on the ground that occurred before Todd Beamer said: “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 that “You are more likely to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps properly and are improperly informed of the severity of the issue.”  Improperly informing one’s self then leads to speculation and inevitably to the comparing and contrasting it other incidents of 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 an incident I’ve experienced previously”?

The culprit they assign to unwarranted fear is hype.  The type of hype, they will suggest, that is usually found in the media and promoted by politicians.  The media wants viewers, 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 undoubtedly true, but it’s also debatably true that the terrorist incident that occurred on 9/11/01 was the most horrific to happen in our country.

This largely political discussion makes its way into our discussion, because it illustrates a mindset.  Those that rationalize horror in this manner tend to carry it with them in their every day, until they are faced with a horror they’ve rationalized for most of their 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 possibly 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.  We fully 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’re prepared 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 slightly 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 could be called mini-disasters in the grand scheme of things, and most people have a fairly 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 accidentally rationalize themselves to death.

Senator Ben Nelson questions extending unemployment

Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) continues to question whether the federal government should extend unemployment benefits to 99 weeks.

“I think 99 weeks raises serious questions,” Nelson said during a conference call with reporters, “that’s almost two years.”


Under the “emergency benefits” title for their actions, Congress has repeatedly extended benefits. The law authorizing the additional federal benefits expired this week, meaning benefit checks will start petering out. Senate Democrats have pushed to re-authorize those benefits through 2011, but have met objections from Republicans.

“If our focus in this lame duck was on economic activity and going for jobs that would increase the base of workers in the country … we could help not only reduce the debt, but we could reduce the number of people who are getting unemployment benefits,” Nelson said.

Nelson has repeated his position on this issue, stating that the extensions should be “paid for.” Nelson said Congress should focus on “creating jobs and addressing tax benefits.”

Congress does not create jobs, but tax benefits for small businesses and corporations would.

Senator Nelson should know that he is out of line with Democrat talking points, as everyone from Pelosi to Sherrod are working the circuit to say that jobless benefits help the economy more than tax cuts do. Their logic behind this is backed by a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) statement that the unemployed are more likely to spend their money, and the rich (or those making more than 250k a year) are more likely to save their money. The question begs to be asked: is it better for the economy if even more of us decide to become unemployed. Should we consider it our patriotic duty, or at least use enough sense to get canned, so that we can collect unemployment? If it’s better for the economy?? Are there people outside our newsrooms that actually believe this line of logic?

To further Nelson’s concern, if these unemployment benefits are new costs to the taxpayer, how can anyone state that it is better for the federal government to give out more of our money in the hopes that it is spent, so that we can save our economy?

Ultra-liberal, extraordinaire Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) argued Wednesday in favor of renewing the federal benefits and criticized Republicans for opposing them while supporting an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.

One is also left to wonder if continually extending unemployment benefits will help to conceal much of the disasters caused by this administration and the 109th through the 111th sessions of Congress.

Under the guise of “emergency benefits” Senators Nelson, Johanns (R-NE, and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are starting to say we’ll agree with an extension of benefits, but they should be offset or paid for in some manner. In other words, we’re willing to play this shell game for a while, but when does the piper have to be paid? How long can we continue to print money and spend at the rates we’re spending at the federal level to Keynes and Krugman’s delight? It may work in their theoretical worlds, but it doesn’t appear to be working here on Earth.