It was March 2002, six months after 9/11, and I was in Dublin, Ireland. My body clock had not yet reset itself, so I was still awake at 2:00 in the morning. Trying not to disturb my fellow travelers, I grabbed a notebook and headed downstairs to the all-night coffee shop in the lobby of our hotel.

In this particular hotel, the night desk clerk doubled as the coffee shop waiter, and while I sat in a booth with my pen and paper, he proceeded to sweep the floor. It was just him and me, so I decided to strike up a conversation.

The toll of a 90% drop in tourism in Ireland that year was obvious. We were oddities, Americans who had ignored the tendency to hunker down, to not fly–especially internationally–and those in the Irish service community noticed it. There were several times when people spontaneously approached us and thanked us for being there. This young night clerk/coffee shop waiter was among them.

“May I ask you a question?” I asked him.

“Of course, you can,” he said, stopping and leaning on his broom.

“What did you think when you heard about planes flying into the World Trade Center?”

He paused for a second. “Do you really want to know?”

When I nodded, he said, “Well, my first response, of course, was to feel sad. You know, there were quite a few Irish people who were in the buildings too. But the second…well, honestly…was…, ‘Now they know.'”

Through the years since, few things have hit me between the eyes quite like this three-word phrase. He was, of course, talking about the fact that before 9/11, most of the world outside of America was well-acquainted with the always-there spectre of life changing in a “New York minute,” as the Don Henley song proclaims.

“In a New York minute
Everything can change
In a New York minute
Things can get little strange…”

This young man, barely 30, if that, had grown up in Belfast before the 1994 ceasefire between the IRA and British forces in Northern Ireland. He’d had an everyday admonition from his parents, probably from the day he was born, to be careful, to watch closely when he walked down the streets near his home. At any moment, a perfectly average car could explode with no warning, devastating anyone who was near. Events like the Oklahoma City bombing or the future Boston Marathon tragedy were “old hat” to this young man.

Our bodies, wondrously, are built with an emergency system. We are each capable of a surge of adrenalin that renders us able to run faster or fight harder than under “normal” circumstances. If angry or frightened (which are pretty much the same feeling except for the projection of responsibility), we are temporarily supplied with the physical power to do things we couldn’t even approach doing when not angry or afraid.

That emergency system works very well in the face of literal physical emergencies. It came in handy thousands of years ago when the type of emergency confronted was a bear or tiger. It came in handy to Queen Elizabeth II when Windsor Castle caught on fire. It was told that she’d single-handedly grabbed a precious rolled-up tapestry and run out with it. I’ve heard of prople lifting the rear of a multi-ton car to free someone they love trapped beneath only to find themselves unable to budge it an hour later. And as drivers, we’ve all managed at one time or another to avoid collisions in remarkable ways. That weak-kneed feeling that comes after we’ve just avoided being creamed is the system returning to “normal.”

There’s an Achilles heel of that emergency system, though. It can’t determine what is a “real” emergency and what is a “perceived” emergency. And it’s a looping thing. If we’re aroused, if the adrenalin is in our systems, making our hearts beat faster, our palms sweaty, our muscles stronger, we are more likely to perceive there’s an emergency when there isn’t. Connections develop between things we know are not threatening when the fight-or-flight response is not in mid-stream and that same-old usually adaptive response. That’s part of the mechanism of phobias. Somehow, the fight-or-flight response has been invoked and connected to something that isn’t an emergency at all. It’s classical conditioning — instead of saliva and the ringing of a bell, it’s whatever we’ve decided is threatening and the elicitation of the emergency system.

And sometimes, when things happen that all the running and fighting in the world won’t fix, we’re left with a new state of “normal.” What was once just a call-on-it-when-it’s-needed function is in force all the time. We forget what it felt like not to be afraid. We forget what it felt like not to be angry. As I used to tell my clients, “We’re all dressed up with no place to go.”

It’s bad enough when the fight-or-flight response gets out of kilter for one, but it’s devastating when it spreads. And it’s highly contagious. A lot of things happen that no one person in a group is intending. Think of the number of people who are hurt everytime there’s a stampede at a sporting event. If you’re Christian and know the story of Barabbas, what do you think really happened there? Without the contagion of those around them, do you really think that any one of those people would have chosen Barabbas instead of Jesus to free?

It takes self-control, the ability to invoke our thinking brains despite all the signals coming from our bodies that we are threatened, and assess the reality of the danger for ourselves as best we can, to prevent the sad results that always occur when the mob mentality takes over. Unless we stop ourselves and use the cognitive parts of our brains, our reason, to determine if we are facing real emergencies or if our bodies are sending us misguided signals, the probability that we will overreact is high. If you’re a parent, how many times have you perhaps spanked your child in a fit of anger or fear, only to wonder if the pop was harder than it should have been?

The irony of the situation is that there is one thing we can do to start the return of our bodies to the lowest stage of alert. We can stop and breathe. One slower, deeper, calm breath sends the message to our fight-or-flight system that it may be a false alarm, giving us time to consider what we are contemplating. It takes one breath to allow us to take back control, to quiet the frightened child inside who’s not thinking at all.

Sometimes, yes, the decision we make is that we are, indeed, in danger. That there is something we can do to protect ourselves, something we must do to reduce the probability of facing a future catastrophe. But the key is to make a decision not driven by the fight-or-flight system, to distinguish between real emergencies and the stories we have concocted in our minds out of nothing but fear.

When FDR said to the people of the United States that there was nothing to fear except fear itself, this is what he was talking about. It’s what we should be talking about now. It’s what we MUST talk about now.

In a New York minute, everything can change. The possibility is always there. But the probabilities wax and wane. Changes, born of misguided actions stimulated by our no-thought-fight-or-flight systems, are not inevitable, but some of them are irreparable. We must choose our responses with wisdom and courage, or we will become the victims of our own hallucinations.

Yes, now we know. But before we act, we must breathe.


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