When I was 16 years old, I was selling cigarettes and t-shirts in my hometown bar, working at night and going to school during the day. I was even smaller then than I am now – maybe 130 pounds if I had a 10 pound barbell in each hand. It was an educational few years for me: I saw adults who were well respected in the community fight, vomit, and initiate affairs under the influence of alcohol. I learned how to deal with drunks, and how not to be, in a general sense.
It was during those years that I experienced my first ever “fight or flight” moment. A group on group bar fight broke out right in front of my little cubby hole of a store. It was too early in the night – the bouncers were scattered about, not expecting trouble. Still getting settled. My reaction was worse than either of the “fight or flight” options. I froze. I mean, I was a kid, right? What was I supposed to do? The guys fighting were all wearing “Tap-out” shirts and seemed like they were trying to make a name for their MMA school – MMA was just on the up and up in those years. By the time I snapped myself out of the frozen state, the bouncers had arrived. I hadn’t even had the presence of mind to call for them. I just stood there, frozen in fear. Once the fight was over, I’d beaten myself up for it for half the night. I decided right then that I would never be frozen like that again because of another man’s actions.
The next time a bar fight broke out, I was ready for it. Two guys – again, way too beefy for me to take on – were pummeling each other furiously. In a lot of ways, the second fight was worse than the first. The group had mostly been throwing each other around, making a mess but not really doing any damage. These guys were throwing real blows. Blood had already been spilled by the time I heard the noise. Don’t freeze. DON’T FREEZE.
“HEY!” I yelled in the most boisterous voice I could muster. It gave them pause, but they went back to pummeling each other. I ran in. Grabbed one of the beefy guy’s arms. Put him in an arm bar (I’d taken a bit of martial arts myself, but the passive philosophical type). I held his arm with all my might, and managed to stop his punches. Then, I realized by mistake. The other man was still free. He carried on punching the one I was controlling, and I inadvertently turned the tide of the fight. Then the bouncers showed up and rescued my 16 year old self again.
I was proud, in some ways. I knew I’d messed up, but I’d learned that the fight or flight “instinct” can be controlled. I learned that action is better than inaction, and I learned the first rule of emergency management: Don’t get excited.
Years later, those skills became increasingly relevant in a military setting, but I had one more freeze-up incident.
It was in the Horn of Africa, where I was part of a “Force Protection Liaison Team.” I’d spent months building relationships with everyone from human traffickers to tribal elders in an effort to keep Americans in the region safe. You can’t fight a threat you don’t know about. Anyway, a hotel fire broke out in one of two hotels in the Northern half of the Djibouti. By the time my partner – a Marine Staff Sergeant – and I arrived, the place was in terror. There were electric explosions along with things like alcohol and fireworks in the building, so that added to the chaos. We were in the desert and had no water to fight the fire with. All around me there were children screaming and women crying, and worst of all – they said there was still a man inside.
I froze for what seemed like eternity – it was really just a few seconds before my earlier lessons kicked back in. Already this post is longer than my average, so I’ll summarize to a great extent, but after a night of fighting for our lives and the lives of others – seeing men pass out from smoke, and attempt to fight a raging fire with dirt and sand – we managed to at least make sure everyone was safe. Even one guy who thought the best way to fight the fire was to stand on the roof and beat it with a large stick. He thought that if the roof collapsed, it would be more effective to dump dirt on the fire from above it. I wondered why anyone would want to force the collapse of a roof they were standing on. I questioned whether I would give my life to save his – he, who had made a stupid choice that could’ve resulted in hellacious pain. The conclusion I came to is my own to bear, but what I learned that night is this:
The fight or flight response is largely dependent on experience and priorities. These days, I often find myself running toward chaos where I think I can lend assistance (it typically turns out to be nothing more than a scare of some kind). I don’t know that there’s much that would make me freeze these days – though I’m aware it’s still possible, for anyone. But if you think about the worst case scenario and know what you’re willing to die for, there’s no reason you can’t prevent yourself from ever being frozen in fear.
If folks like reading about these concepts, maybe I’ll explore them further?
Dustin Stitt (The Quiet Visionary)