Salutary Shocks


As a book creation coach, I was having lunch with a prospective client. Turned out he was a multi-millionaire. What was his goal? I asked. He wanted nothing less than to help end the Cold War. In 1984 I'd never met anybody who thought that conflict would ever end. “What a worthy goal, but how difficult,” I gently said. “I know it’s impossible, Craig,” he replied, “but it’s necessary.” We became immediate friends, and worked together for five years.

I have often wondered what moved me to join an effort that at first led even our friends to murmur, “well, at least you probably will do no harm.” I think part of the answer is that I knew from experience that normality could turn into nightmare in a flash. In short, the fact that we’d avoided nuclear war for almost four decades was no guarantee that it wouldn't happen unless the basic relationship were changed.

What was the personal experience? It was a scary moment when I suddenly felt that I was in big trouble. Prior to leaning to swim, I went with our local summer day camp to a lake. While the other young kids waded in to knee depth and splashed each other, I decided to walk away from the group, to another cove, one that was otherwise deserted, and to edge out into the water until my eyes were barely above the surface. (This is the kind of experiment that appealed to me as a kid.)

The experiment went well until the last step, which took me off an underwater ledge. I was facing away from the shore, terrified, without experience even to know how to turn round, afraid to lose my breath by crying out and also to be embarrassed by my foolishness. Somehow I managed to dog-paddle, and get back to water in which I could stand and, without a word, to rejoin the group of children and counselors.

After that I was so frightened of deep water that, when seeking the “lifesaver” merit badge necessary to become an Eagle Scout, I was hesitant to climb down the ladder into the deep end of an indoor pool even with the full attention of two adults teaching the class. With their understanding and help, I managed to complete the training and the next summer even swam off a Martha’s Vineyard fishing boat in the ocean. The shock was not too severe to be cured by unconditional love.

I later got occasional flashes of drowning, but the summer camp incident did not prevent me from enjoying water sports. As an adult, I even went down white-water rivers in a kayak. But it did teach me, for the first time, that things could change suddenly for the worse. I’m not sure this is a trivial or unnecessary lesson, so long as it’s not incapacitating.

It’s not a lesson that any responsible adult would allow to happen, but perhaps this is part of the point of childhood play, of learning about the limits of the world by trying things out. This process could be fatal or disabling, but very, very seldom is. Perhaps the process teaches lessons that are never learned when a child’s time is all planned by adults who transport them from one supervised activity to another (and thus build a resume for college applications).

As an adult, I had a number of reminders. For example, I nearly suffered a vehicular collision in a ski village and then was almost buried under an avalanche; like everybody else, I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962; in Tunisia almost fell into a deep Roman cistern; watched the 1966 Fulbright hearings on the war in Vietnam, concluding that the lunatics had taken over the asylum; saved a stranger from suicide by car exhaust; watched Manhattan lose its electricity one night from a pier in the Hudson; and experienced troubles in the San Francisco Bay Area (torrential rain, earthquake, wildfire). As a “citizen diplomat” helping a little to end the Cold War, I was told a stunning nuclear secret over coffee in Moscow.

These incidents were unavoidable. (Readers will have other examples. )These were all valuable reminders that, rather than my lapsing into denial or self-pity, moments of terror may offer an opportunity for being a little creative. Without experiences such as these, I might not have taken seriously the goal of helping to end of Cold War, an end that seemed, as my friend said, obviously impossible at the time. (Reported in detail in a book, Enlarging Our Comfort Zones.)

Most people whom I knew assumed that nuclear war wouldn't happen, because, well, it hadn’t. For some reason my partner at lunch knew it could happen, and was willing, in order to help change the basic situation, to subject himself to dismissal as ridiculous and later to charges of favoring the other side. He endowed a foundation, co-edited a pair of books, traveled to the U.S.S.R., and talked on over a hundred radio and TV programs here at home.

I was ready to help in part because of coming through the shocks mentioned above. In general, how do we produce people who know in their bones that very bad things can happen and who, as a result, work to lessen that possibility or at least support relevant initiatives? Otherwise we are caught in the trap of not taking seriously events that are assumed to have a low probability of occurring but would be catastrophic if they did.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) is caused by such major events as getting shot in war,or suffering a rape, but less severe shocks may have a value. Such shocks can teach valuable lessons that you’d never seek but are not unhappy to have come through. You may even feel grateful for the response to them.

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