Presence of Mind

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

“I knew the situation was serious. I was shaking all over. But I was amazed by the complexity of my mind — the most clear part was just the speed and agility of my mind. I immediately began talking to him in a calm voice and engaged in eye contact. But he was not in his eyes. He was in his own world — pointing a gun at me.”

Is this a good time to address the big lie? You know, the lie about our stark, raving helplessness in the face of armed danger and malevolence? Fortress Gun Nut has the whole country hostage to the big lie that a safe America is an armed America, and yet as our stockpile of weaponry, domestic and otherwise, increases, so does our fearfulness, and so does the danger.

And the heroes are often indistinguishable from the perps. We’re all heroes in our own minds. We all watch the movies and imbibe the whack ’n’ win culture. We all learn that real justice must be delivered at the point of a sword that is terrible and swift.

Christian theologian Walter Wink calls it the myth of redemptive violence, this self-evident conviction — as old as Mesopotamia, as current as the Saturday morning cartoons — that violence is effective and free of unwanted consequences. Six millennia of evidence to the contrary hasn’t changed anything because myth is impervious to empirical data. It’s born anew with every war, every special-effects extravaganza from Hollywood, every loner’s sad plot for revenge. And so many people profit from it.

I think our only hope is to pierce the myth — this smug, self-satisfied myth that keeps luring us into foolish decisions. Maybe it will never go away; the appeal of clean and easy vengeance and the ultimate end run around obstacles is perennially appealing. But if we challenge the myth with an even more appealing truth — that we have extraordinary inner resources we can tap in a crisis — perhaps we can push the myth out of cultural dominance and, crucially, disarm it.

The place to start is where we’re the most desperate. How do we defend ourselves? Whether or not you’re armed, you need presence of mind, and if you have that you may not need anything else.

“I remember clearly continuing to talk to him and keeping eye contact,” my friend Shelly, who is quoted above, told me. One night some years ago, shortly after she had left her husband, he showed up at her house and pulled a gun on her. Their 2-year-old son Seth was asleep in the next room.

Shelly’s is a story of courage and quick thinking, which are the basic tools of self-defense. As soon as her vacant-eyed ex pulled out his handgun, her mind went into high gear, evaluating possible actions. She realized instantly that trying to run or grabbing for the phone would lead to disaster. She simply maintained eye contact.

“I had a very calm tone of voice. It wasn’t fearful,” she said. “It was very clear there was a narrow window here. That’s where it felt almost like something else taking over me. I was aware I was shaking. But I was fully present to the situation, totally alert.

“At some point I said, if you shoot me you’ll wake up Seth. Then what will happen? That’s when he came back. I saw him come back into his eyes. He started swinging his gun around.”

She continued talking with hyper-calmness, as though addressing a child, reminding him: “You don’t want to wake up Seth.” Finally she said, “‘Well, I have to go to work tomorrow.’ I turned around and walked into the bathroom and started brushing my teeth.”

He put his gun away. The crisis was over. He eventually left and got on with his life.

“Most assailants work from a definite set of expectations about how the victim will respond, and they need the victim to act like a victim,” writes Wink in “The Powers That Be.” And the best way not to “act like a victim” is to respond to a threat from outside the expectations of the attacker — not with flailing fear or paralyzed surrender but, sheerly, with presence of mind. In such a state, your self-defense options multiply.

My friend Leigh’s mother once confronted every woman’s worst nightmare. “She woke up and heard the window slide open and someone prying open the screen,” he told me. “She looked up and saw a man climbing in through the window. He announced he’d been looking forward to this for a long time and described what he intended to do to her.

“Mom — I hate to say it — wore black plastic horn-rim glasses, like the women in Far Side cartoons,” Leigh went on. “She reached under her nightstand, grabbed her glasses, let one arm fall down and held it out as if it were a handgun. She yelled at the guy to get back or she’d fire. And he left.”

I relay these stories in the hopes of getting more. The point is not that horn-rimmed glasses are a reliable defense against rape but that people who maintain their presence of mind under dire threat will think of something to do. I’d like to start a clearinghouse of such testimony. Please e-mail me if you have yourself or know someone who has defused a threat with unarmed presence of mind. Perhaps the sum total of a thousand or a million unique stories is a myth-busting truth that could transform a culture.