Based on my life experience, I believe some rare human beings are blessed—or maybe cursed—with what I call a “crisis personality.” These people are preternaturally inclined to become calm when faced with an emergency or great danger. They are the opposite of those subject to hysteria in crisis situations. I think I’m one of those maddeningly calm people.
I first noticed that trait about myself as a child of parents who had violent fights. I’d be anxious and pleading until it became clear to me that nothing I could do would avert the conflict. Then I’d feel a coldness spreading through me, and my rational mind took over, blanking out my emotions. My cold-bloodedness saw me through my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s repeated prison terms. As a young adult, I faced both of their deaths—he was killed in a bar brawl, she died of lung cancer—with icy detachment until I was alone and could grieve in private. It became clear to me that the cold rationality only took over when it was urgent that I react with a clear mind to danger or what I perceived as a driving need to keep my wits about me.
That quality saw me through combat with army and Marine units in South Vietnam. It probably saved my life. The downside was that I didn’t react to the gruesomeness of combat when it was happening. I stored up the horrors, pushed them into my unconscious. They came back in force later to haunt me as Post-Traumatic Stress Injury which is the consequence of witnessing or participating in events so grisly that they permanently damage the soul.
Remembering the days during the fall of Saigon when Bob and Gary and I were holed up in our offices during the North Vietnamese attack on the city, I recall the calmness, the lack of emotion, that characterized all three of us. My sense is that Bob and Gary didn’t possess crisis personalities; they were instead reacting to me as their leader. I recall numbers of times when I, as a follower, assumed the emotional stance of the man I was following. I think they did the same.
There’s no question in my mind that our cool workmanlike attitude was one of the factors that led to our survival. I guess the moral to the story is that it’s a blessing to be calm in the face of danger. That same idiosyncrasy is a curse in emotional settings where compassion is required. I’ve learned over the years to loosen the grip of rationality when I’m comforting others in grief.