With Hurricane Sandy slamming into the East Coast, two men in their 20s decided, nonetheless, to kayak into the waters of Long Island Sound Sunday night. One was rescued from the churning waters while clinging to his kayak. The other remains missing, with the search for him being called off until the storm passes.
Needless to say, rescuers were placed in harm’s way by the brazen acts of these thrill seekers. One, tragically, may no longer be alive. So, why did they do it? Why put their own lives at risk, risk the lives of rescuers and potentially make their loved ones grieve their loss?
Looking at the bigger picture, why do many people stay in vulnerable, storm-ravaged areas when they are told to evacuate? What is going on inside their minds? Feelings of invulnerability? Death wishes? Narcissism?
Are they just jerks?
No. There is always a “why” to every seemingly inexplicable act. All human behavior can be understood when the life stories of the actors are known and the social context for their acts understood.
Many factors may be responsible for ignoring storm warnings. First, there is the intensely personal factor of one’s own history. People who take extraordinary risks can be, for example, people who have been traumatized in the past by events beyond their control (like the sudden loss of a loved one or by abuse they could not ward off) and who have not processed their feelings of extreme vulnerability. Using the psychological defense called “reaction formation,” they turn feelings of powerlessness into their opposites—irrational feelings of invulnerability. They can venture into peril, because they have denied all their fear, because it is simply too frightening to acknowledge.
If you want to think like a psychiatrist (which, I will tell you, is its own peril), consider the fact that plucking people from rooftops often means rescuing people who needed to be rescued a long time ago—but from very different storms, and from other houses.
Beyond the personal, there is the cultural. We are living in technological times that deluge us with high-impact drama, while at the same time sterilizing the range of real human experience and, thereby, removing us from reality. Our movies are, increasingly, about vampires and superheroes, embroiled in conflicts that dwarf and can extinguish our sensitivies, rather than kindling them. Our wars are broadcast to us as bloodless affairs, in which “smart bombs” enter doorways and obliterate people, in which drones target our enemies and remove them and nearly every trace
of them from the planet. This is a time in which instant messaging passes for interpersonal contact, and fake Facebook profiles pass for real autobiographies. It is a time when special effects can make us respond emotionally to scenes and situations that don’t even exist. In such times, a governor’s real and heartfelt and sage warning to evacuate a coastal area may not overcome the background noise of reality shows. The true peril of a real and large storm may just not register with folks, as it once did. It is lost in information overload and the countless millions of fibs and big lies told through television and the Internet.
Remember, the assailants in some school shootings say they are shocked to see blood shed, even though they are the ones who fired the bullets.
Kayaking into a storm may now seem like an event ripe for Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. And the life experiences—in fact, **the lives**—of the people doing the kayaking may be no more now than conduits for Tweets. We may now be on our way to being merely feed for the Twitter feed.
Being rescued from a rooftop may now be more of a gripping social media event, than a harrowing life event.
We are living in times removed from ourselves, one another and reality. In these times, even big storms (whether, by the way of wind and rain, or of ominous economic data, or news that our sworn enemies are developing nuclear arms) may not pierce our ability to fend off the facts, nor motivate us to find higher ground and keep ourselves safe and strong.