Monday, September 12, 2011

True Stories of John 13: Do Not Post Until 9/12

It’s one of my earliest memories in which I suspect I’m sociopathic. The girl across the hall was having a fit that morning. She threw a tantrum over something every morning.

“They blew up the subway!” I heard.

I dismissed it. I showered and readied for class. As I pulled on a t-shirt, I checked It was down. That was a first. I didn’t know it could go down.

I stopped in the Commons building to check my mail. There was one cable television in there. Both entrances to the TV room were stuffed with people. I looked over a boy’s shoulder and watched the plane hit the second tower. It was probably a replay.

I couldn’t move. Not for terror or awe, but because that’s what I felt the room wanted. In social situations I’m keenly aware of what I think is acceptable in the group. In seconds I had all the news the TV had to share. I was ready to leave. No one else was. I only knew that walking away would break an unspoken covenant with these dozens of stunned strangers. That was my strongest feeling.

“Bullshit,” I heard from my left. “Bullshit. This is why everyone hates America.”

It was the Eastern European accent of one of my few friends. He was a prickly personality. We’d met during a Shakespeare workshop. When I confessed to the workshoppers that I’d taken it because I found his works unbearably stilted and desired understanding, everyone but him stared. He laughed his ass off.

Now he was cursing his ass off in two languages. His face scoured all the silent Americans, seeking argument. Most eyes remained on the TV, but some shifted with indignation. It grew hotter without the temperature going up.

I got up and touched his shoulder. He tensed as though to clock me, but I spoke before he could ball up a hand.

“Why don’t you tell me about this?” I asked. It was all tone; I don’t really know what I meant. I only knew that the attacks on TV were raw voyeurism, and that this was an act of violence I could actually prevent. My tone of voice engaged him enough to follow me into the mail room. There, he was completely unable to articulate what offended him. Something to do with our media and our excessive self-pity. After two minutes of spitting and spinning in place, he departed for class. So did I.

I sat in the classroom, greeting my fellow students and letting them know why everything was cancelled for the day. In half an hour, I went to the lawn for the dean’s little speech. I spent hours lending shoulders for people to cry. I knew enough to get out of the way of kids whose relatives might actually be in jeopardy, and enough to check up that no more attacks had happened. Once it seemed certain that it had ended with the fourth plane, my mind actually shifted to thoughts that if I could write a book about this fast enough I might ride it to publication. I knew enough to chastise myself for the thought, even though I didn’t feel shame.

There was no fear for myself or country. I knew enough to go stolid when others came around. I knew enough not to say a lot of things. I wondered if everyone around me was acting, or if the majority possessed empathy I lacked. Was I fundamentally broken? Or were they all going through imitation shock, out of the same social instinct that had kept me glued to the TV room?

But then, my potentially broken self had defused the situation with my foreign friend. Later I heard from two people that I’d probably saved him from a fistfight. And my potentially broken self knew enough to want to appease and help others around me all that day, and for the ensuing weeks. It was just that something in my head went too immediate and pragmatic to be shaken by tragedies from afar.

Ten years later, I’m still not comfortable with this feature about myself.

No, that’s not true. I feel like the group would prefer I wasn’t comfortable with it. Just like I felt I shouldn’t post this story until 9/12.


  1. I can relate to your reaction, if on a smaller scale. It reminded me of the day I got a phone call from my hysterical mother, telling me she had just had a car accident with my young daughter on board.
    Everyone was carrying on like pork chops, but I just calmly got into my car and drove to the scene of the accident, knowing that my demeanour would make no difference to an event which had already occurred.
    I wondered then why my response was so different to that of everyone else.
    I'm not weird, and either are you. We just see things different to other people.

  2. In the middle of Nowhere, Colorado there were some honestly asking if we were a target. When I called my folks we joked that maybe the planes had been hijacked by disgruntled architects.

    A couple years later, when relating that story in class, many of them said they'd felt a similar lack of connection. If we had true empathy then the proximity to tragedy wouldn't matter - and we'd be crippled since tragedies are a constant facet of our lives now. It's all just different processing at this point.

  3. On 9/11, I was in a position where I had responsibility for the safety and security of my coworkers, in a building that was a legitimate target. They all freaked out; I did not. One of the big things that helps people to not freak out is to have something to do, some task to perform. I had lots to do on 9/11, specific defined tasks to accomplish, not least of which was responding to and managing the rising panic of the people I was with.

    Aside from talking to your friend and defusing the room, you took it upon yourself to inform your fellow students about class being cancelled, and then to be a listener for others. That doesn't sound like a sociopath to me.

  4. They were reacting to the situation while you were taking charge of situations that needed to handled.
    Taking charge and remaining cool in an emergency doesn't doesn't make one a sociopath.

  5. I react the same way in emergencies and at funerals (odd that those two things would come to mind together?). People react differently. Sometimes I wish I could cry and get hysterical just to fit in, but it doesn't work that way. The tears and/or ruminations on what happened come at their own pace.

  6. I don't think reacting like that makes you a sociopathic.

    Though I am surprised your classes went on; my school canceled classes that day and got parents to pick up whoever made it. Not that I went that day. (I was running late and the subway was shutdown so no way I could go. Even if it wasn't, I wouldn't have risked it. Just as well.)

    As for the middle eastern guy - I don't understand his reaction. But you did good preventing a fight.

  7. I agree with the above comments, the assurances that people react differently under duress, and that your reaction was truly one of action - doing what you could, where you could.

    It reminds me of the old prayer, "God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." This is what came through in your post, in spite of your opening line.

  8. You're a sociopath as likely as I'm Mary, Queen of Scots.

    This is excellent, a nice buster to the myth of there being some "proper" way to respond to tragedy.

  9. I just couldn't stop thinking of the kids, the children whose parents went to work that morning and then didn't return. I couldn't shake the image of a 2 or 3 year old asking his or her mother, now a single parent, "where's daddy?" And the mother, likely in a state of shock and profound sadness, having to answer that question.

    I don't think your reaction makes you a sociopath in any way shape or form, but I'm surprised that your "strongest feeling" involved breaking an "unspoken covenant" between "strangers" who were in the TV room with you at the time. From reading your blog, seems to me you're very capable of deep feeling . . . perhaps a national or global tragedy somewhere out there in the distance can't stir your emotions the way something much more trivial could if it occurred right under your nose? If I'm correct about this, then you're certainly not alone, in fact I think most people are the same way.

  10. Oh, Christian.

    I don't think this makes you a sociopath. I think it means that when everyone else is panicking, you are more likely to remain calm and diffuse the situation. That, I think even more than panicking or reacting in hysterics to something perceived as tragic, shows a great deal more empathy than anything else.


Counter est. March 2, 2008