Reacting in a crisis

Bud Ellison,

My church does an overnight watch for Maundy Thursday into Good Friday. I have the 3:00 AM to 4:00 AM shift. It was open and I’m glad. It’s a hard hour and I suspect that nobody else wanted it, but I do. I love challenges, love the hard stuff.

The overnight watch is a symbolic wait with Jesus in the garden before His arrest and crucifixion. We wait with Him, hope to stay awake, hope to actually do what we want to do, what is right to do. Jesus knew what terrible things were coming and He could have escaped but instead He stayed and did what was right.

Tonight, I will hope to stay awake. I have, in years past, stayed until dawn, and dawn at my church is a beautiful thing, especially after a night like what is coming. I mentioned that to my pastor and she asked me to read the Scripture at the 7:00 AM liturgy on Good Friday, so I have another job to do, another challenge, and I love that. I will go back home and sleep awhile after that.

For now, it all has me thinking about reactions to crisis. I have a good chuckle when I hear anyone say, “I would have done _____!” Sure, whatever, that’s what you think that you would have done, or what you want me to think that you would have done, but until and unless it happens, none of us, especially you, know what you would actually do.

So far, I have been hit by two drivers who left the scene without exchanging information. This blog was created as a place of honor, where no one will be bashed, but the drivers in question did what I will say that they did, to the best of my reconstructed memory, and both are surely long gone. I do not think that these stories will hurt anyone.

The first was August 1987, in Caln Township, Chester County. I did not see the other driver hit me but I heard a long series of crashes that seemed to take forever. My little 1978 Honda Accord hatchback bounced as he hit me probably four times. The crash stalled my engine and I coasted into a Wawa parking lot, thinking about the post-collision procedures that I learned in driver’s education. The other driver pulled up next to me, then took off, so I restarted my engine, safely passed two large riding mowers that were on the road, and chased him. About a quarter-mile down the road, we passed my father, who was leaving a nearby business and driving my sister to work. He saw the series of dents down the side of my car and how I was tailgating the car ahead of me, wisely concluded that something serious was happening, and followed me.

It turns out that you really cannot make another driver pull over. Honking and flashing lights and gestures don’t make anything happen, so I memorized the tag and the car. This was August 1987. The tag was 5CO 513 and I described it as a light blue 1970’s version of the Chevrolet Nova, because it looked like the 1976 Nova that my father had. I thought that I had made a mistake when the police report came over the radio, a Pontiac something, but the officer said that he restored and resold old cars in his spare time and had just sold this very model of Pontiac. As General Motors cars, it was the same body as the Nova, so he knew that I had seen the right car. In 1987, there was no 911 and so no requirement for street addresses and the car was registered to a man in his 80’s with a rural route number. He said that he had been at that place at that time but had not hit anyone, so he made an appointment to have his car checked. Maybe two weeks later he visited the police, my car’s paint all over his bumper, case closed.

The second was in July 1993, in Richmond, Virginia. Police love vanity tags because they are easy to remember, and this time I was hit by MAUDE 91. I think that she was driving a white Buick but that part does not stand out clearly for me. At the bottom of the hill, the first place to pull over, I signaled my turn into the Exxon, and I noticed that she did not have her signal on, so when I turned in, I immediately straightened out and pulled parallel to the road, watched her drive by, caught her tag, and followed her for a few blocks before she turned into a neighborhood with a lot of gunfire at night. I was a Yankee in Richmond and not on safe ground so I dropped my pursuit, continued home, and called 911.

These stories remind me of my near-mugging in Richmond, so please bear with me, as it will get us closer to where I want to go. I worked for a church with a homeless ministry and in December, an African-American heritage chorus would hold a benefit concert for us. The nearby McDonald’s donated an orange bowl, which is one gallon of “orange” concentrate, a five-gallon cooler, and cups, and my job was to retrieve it. While I waited at the counter, two men came in and seemed to recognize me, though I did not know them. One came over and leaned in and offered to sell me gold chains and men’s cologne as Christmas gifts. “No thank you, I’m not interested,” over and over until the manager brought the donations.

As I walked out, hands full, I heard the door closing behind me, stop, and then open, and I knew that I was being followed. I probably should have stopped right at the restaurant, but I continued to my car and found myself facing the other man. Again with the gold chains and men’s cologne and the no-thank-you-I’m-not-interested but we only did this one or twice before he demanded some orange drink. The concentrate is thick and too sweet and has to be mixed with water, and I did not want to break the seal on the bottle and have it pour all over my car on the trip back to church. It almost seems funny now, that I was focused on the game in front of me instead of the larger game that we were playing, but in any case, I told him that it was too sweet to drink, and he said that he knew, that he would take some and get water from the bathroom and mix it up, but I said no again.

“You work in a church, man, you ain’t no Christian!” He overplayed his hand. Now I know who he is, approximately, and I know the rules. I’m supposed to give him whatever he wants because I feel guilty. I’m supposed to say yes and keep saying yes until I have been hurt and he has gained.

I am Irish, and I was raised Roman Catholic. I have been guilt-tripped by the best, and this guy isn’t the best. It’s not going to work, and he doesn’t have a Plan B, hasn’t considered the possibility that I won’t follow his script. I’m young and far out of my element, which are both a risk and a strength. I am somewhat unpredictable.

Besides that, I’m an egghead. Suddenly, in this dark McDonald’s parking lot in December, I’m facing a mugger who made a theological comment. I disrespectfully disagree. Christians are not defined as suckers, and I have been guilt-tripped by far better.

In other words, I’m suddenly angry. “What did you just say?!” “Uh, nothing.” “No, you said something! Say it again!” He starts to stumble backwards. “Come back here and say that again!” He turns and half-runs for the back of the building and I follow him for a few steps before coming to my senses. I just won. If I follow him, he finds his friend and they regroup and then I lose. I drive back to the church without further incident and I never see those men in our homeless ministry again.

I left that part of Richmond a few months later. About a year later, Isham Douglas Draughn II, a young black man, about my age, working as a private security guard at that McDonald’s, was shot in the head and killed in that parking lot. We were on different paths in life, and race probably had much to do with that, but I identified with Isham a lot because of my experience. I did not know him, but I hope that his soul is at rest.

With the perpetual stories about mass shootings, and the current though belated public rage about them, there has been much talk lately about violence and again these farcical pronouncements about what a person would do or another should do when faced with a crisis. You don’t know. Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Dawn Hochsprung, the school principal charged the shooter at that school. We now know that at least Ms. Hochsprung rehearsed this before she had to do it.  They died and they did not stop him. They might have died anyway, but they tried to stop him and surely did buy time for teachers to barricade their students in safe places. We know what Mary and Dawn did.

A crisis – properly defined as a time when our stressors exceed our coping resources, by the way – causes the brain to flood with stress hormones, mostly dopamine and norepinephrine. These interfere with the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, home to executive functioning, which includes planning, organization, impulse control, and working memory. However, other parts of the brain, including the basil ganglia, home to motor patterns, are not affected. That’s the egghead explanation for why it’s hard to hear and think clearly during a crisis. That is also why old habits return, unimpeded by the control system in the prefrontal cortex. For example, under stress, a smoker will probably put his hands to his mouth, fingers apart as though holding a cigarette, even if he cannot smoke. By the way, that’s what gamblers call a tell. They are distinctive and individual and the people around you know when you are stressed out, when it has been a rough day, even if they don’t know how they know. Your tells are showing.

The bad guys run scripts, introduce an unusual stimulus that they know reliably prompts a set and, for the bad guy, beneficial, response. It’s manipulation and a form of aggression by itself. I wasn’t completely aware of that in the parking lot at McDonald’s, but I was aware enough, knowing that some malicious game was in play starting at the counter, and that was enough to anger me. By the way, the mugger experienced his own crisis when I did not react as scripted, as expected, and he had no alternative plan. He did not get what he wanted from me and did not have another way to get it and so he had to give up. I don’t have any sympathy for him, but that is what happened.

The malicious script has to be unusual because it has to be something for which the intended victim does not a countering protective script. I can understand a kindergartner panicking in response to a fire in a trash can, but I cannot understand the same response in a fire fighter. He has been trained to respond effectively, trained and practiced time after time until he establishes motor patterns, what is often called muscle memory, which isn’t in the muscles but rather in the basal ganglia. When the stress levels are up and the fire fighter cannot think clearly, he goes into automatic mode, relies on habits, grabs the fire extinguisher and runs PASS (pull the pin, aim, squeeze the handle, sweep). That acronym is a mnemonic device – his memory can find it easily and that will help to get his body into the script for using the fire extinguisher. That is why emergency responders train much and uniformly. The right response has to be automatic. The tools have to be where expected, in the condition expected. There is no time to think. It has to be habit.

Jesus had a lot of experience praying for long periods of time, a lot of experience with God’s goodness and man’s evil, a lot of time throughout his life to prepare for what was coming, and that probably served him well as Maundy Thursday gave way to Good Friday. The disciples fell asleep, but we cannot blame them. They did not know what to expect, had not rehearsed it, were not prepared.

Tonight, I will eat dinner early, try to be in bed around 7:00, by 8:00 at the latest. It was a brutal week and so sleep should come easily. I pray that it does. My CPAP will help. I will wake around 1:00, shower and dress, try to leave around 2:30, stop at Wawa on the way to church and be grateful for those who routinely work overnight, be at the church by 3:00. From experience, I know that I will be excited and happy to be there and that will keep me going, but the relief of dawn will be the hardest time. It’s good that I will have a job to do in the liturgy. That also excites me. When the liturgy is done, then I am going home to sleep for a few hours until, and I’m not making this up, I go to an appointment to have my CPAP tuned up.

In all of this, I hope that I have the strength and courage to do what I plan to do, what I want to do. I hope that my actions reflect my heart.