Am I just another nobody like everyone else?
When I lived in Marquette, Michigan, whether I was playing hockey or surviving an aggressive, alcohol-fueled inning of broomball (a Northern Michigan University career athletics sport) my call sign was ‘Apocalypse’. My closest friends shortened it to A-pocs. When I asked why I had been thusly tagged, the gang said,
“whenever we were losing, we would put you into the game and there was always a sudden, violent change”.
I must admit to a series of violent episodes and anti-social rampages between my 13th birthday and my 17th birthday. Each would have qualified as an event where I intended to commit destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.
These epic brawls were brought on by my inability to express my critical thinking skills and process stress prompted by my hair-trigger rage response. During these incidents, my lack of empathy was rarely unintentional. I look back on those days and I admit that I am not proud of the path of devastation I left behind as evidence of my early teens, yet I own it.
So, today we are going to talk about an apocalypse of sorts. Perhaps not the complete and final destruction of the world as detailed in Revelation (the final book of the New Testament) but a reflection on how we as humans process an event of apocalyptic proportions.
Are they lost in the games they play?
I think I fell in love with Scotland when I was taking part in Joint Warrior. I had taken part in three Bold Quest events for NATO and multiple contributing nations before it and I was lucky enough to be asked to take part in Joint Warrior by some folks I met at Bold Quest.
The Scots were incredible.
We lived as one group in a small fishing town called Kinlochbervie (or K-L-B to us newly minted locals) in Sutherland (the Highland Region of Scotland) just off Cape Wrath. I had spent many a training session in and around Cape Fear in the States, so this Cape Wrath mission seemed destined.
A recently viewed film transported me psychologically back to that little town in Scotland but let me give you some context first…
I don’t know if the Vine entertainment network is still around. It was a place to post videos. Many personalities got a tremendous boost after being featured on Vine. Trends that started elsewhere blew up after being posted on Vine.
There was also an air of insider baseball to the site. Sometimes you had to know about a trend or get ‘read in’ to the joke, gag or tribute.
On the morning of 05 May 2015, Vine featured a channel where actor Ryan Gosling posted a video of him pouring cereal into a bowl, adding milk, giving a salute to the camera and then going on to enjoy his breakfast.
Those “in on” the tribute knew that Gosling was commemorating the 02 May 2015 death of young Scottish filmmaker Ryan McHenry.
Trapped in a moment, ready to fly.
In 2011, Ryan McHenry had received a Best Director nomination in the short film category for Zombie Musical. McHenry’s film related a student named Anna who, while on the way to school one day, had to contend with more than just the travails of any normal high school kid. Her day forced her to navigate the challenges of a recent zombie epidemic. The film was a critical success leading the British Academy of Scotland New Talent Awards to recognize McHenry with a nomination as well.
As a social media gimmick, Ryan McHenry created a series in 2013 called Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal. Armed with short film clips of Ryan Gosling and a bowl of cereal, McHenry timed his vids so that each time he tried to feed Gosling some cereal, Gosling would turn away just before the spoon met the screen appearing as though Gosling was refusing McHenry’s offer.
Hundreds of thousands of viewers would tune in to see whether Gosling would eat his cereal, creating an internet sensation of sorts.
Sooner or later it ends in goodbye.
Sadly, in 2015, this smart, fun new Scottish talent died after a short bout with brain cancer.
Just a couple of days before he died, Ryan McHenry tweeted to his fans,
“Yesterday was my 10,000th day alive on this Earth and not one of you got me a card or anything”.
Deadpan to the end. Gone, but certainly not forgotten.
For many of us, Ryan will live on forever whenever we see the 2017 film Anna and the Apocalypse. Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry adapted Ryan’s Zombie Musical into a full-length feature film musical. Scored by Roddy hart and Tommy Reilly and choreographed by my new fave crush Sarah Swire, Anna and the Apocalypse was released after McHenry’s death.
John McPhail (another Scot) directed for Ryan and did an incredible job of making us care about the residents of Little Haven, Scotland.
Now before I get hate mail from you, take a moment and hear the songs, see the film and then READ the dialogue and scripting. When you are done and you have a true appreciation of the magnitude of the caper compared against the budget, understand that Sarah Swire choreographed each scene, dance and musical number.
If you’ve ever been in film (hell, to film school) you can understand how hard it is to be an actor. Then add the complexity of choreography, and finish with the idea that Swire is singing and dancing in almost every number. Perhaps now you’ll understand why Swire is my current crush. Hats off, ma’am and get thee to my podcast. You would be a welcome guest.
Sadly, St. Stephen’s High School in Inverclyde, Scotland, the school that starred as the central location of the film was torn down in 2019, so no future pilgrimage there. In an ironic twist of fate, the same fate befell the old farmhouse from George Romero’s classic opening bid, his 1968 horror classic.
Good news, though – with all of our trips to Pennsylvania, we are poised to visit the infamous graveyard from the opening of Night of the Living Dead. It’s located through a tree-lined route on Franklin Road. Just drive about a half an hour north of Pittsburgh to Evans City on Route 68 and follow the signs.
There’s more to me and I know I must break away.
On to the ‘So What?’ If you have ever had the occasion to walk through your neighborhood’s “Haunted house” on Halloween night or perhaps watch a really scary horror film with your sweetie on a ‘dark and stormy night’ – you will have had the chance to exhibit all of the same physiological responses that you would feel if you actually encountered an axe swinging lunatic on the street.
That level of arousal is ‘cognitively close enough’ in both instances to give you an idea of what sheer terror in a real encounter would feel like.
Of course, the electrochemical responses you would experience would be slightly less during the film than in the mock-haunted house, and the mock-haunted house would be slightly less than that felt during a real-life al life, although the peaks would be similar (for example; the startle responses would be virtually identical during all three).
Would I call it TRAINING for the real event? No. It falls into the category of education but falls short of actual training.
Please allow me to explain.
Because your senses were heightened by the experience, it’s likely that you will retain the chemical effects from the event (whether film or being chased by a real axe murderer) and you will be hyperalert for a period immediately after the incident. If you had a coach, instructor or mentor during that period and you discussed your performance and that of an expert model, then made corrections and ‘went back in’ to correct your earlier performance, then, arguably it could be considered an experiential learning environment, in other words, learning through the reflection on the experience.
Based on that logic, it is then just as likely to assume that certain humans will have a form of post-incident stress associated with and tied to similar external arousal for some time to come. So, why doesn’t that work for the Corona Virus?
Garbage in, garbage out.
The recent mass hysteria regarding COVID19 (the coronavirus) was fueled by conspiracy theorists then propagated by the yellow journalists who typify today’s mainstream news media.
Real fear spreads through society when an actual virus that could and might kill you is actually present in your immediate environment. That’s vastly different than the fear experienced when you read a great novel by Max Brooks about a dystopian future or surviving a ZOMPOC, the zombie apocalypse.
While there is some fear and a larger amount of titillation experienced in watching horror films with zombies, in your heart of hearts or more specifically your ‘brain of brains’ is quite certain that he likelihood of exposure to a zombie is quite low. That’s not the case when you’re in the mall or on a plane and someone around you sneezes or coughs.
That fear – the fear that comes from understanding that you just got douched with the flu, a common cold or maybe COVID19 frightens you immensely and then the fact that you can’t watch the news without seeing stories about the spread of the coronavirus then frightens you to your core.
Exacerbating that feeling that it just might happen is the fact that your neighbors are spreading gossip, the local hardware store is price-gouging (the Purell is gone, the soap is gone – what were these folks doing BEFORE coronavirus? – and your local mall or theater is virtually empty, these facts are enough to spin what should be a tempered, measured response into a total apocalyptic event.
We are spoiled. Perhaps too spoiled.
Our lines of communication, ability to use electricity, natural gas, our access to clean water and a seemingly never-ending access to a variety of raw or cooked food on a 24-hour bases have softened us up. Not just softened us for a ZOMPOC, but for something as simple as a high-threat virus.
We don’t have soft-skill defenses against criminals, why would you expect that your neighbor or work counterpart understands that washing hands isn’t just an acceptable alternative to transmitting diseases, but literally essential to our survival as a species?
When the shortages start (whether inflated by fear or actually experienced because of a no-shit event) you will see the true measure of society. All for one and one for all quickly turns to ‘every he, him, his’ for themselves. We can fix that with education and TRAINING.
What we cannot fix is the fact that certain people seek out the challenge posed by threats and fear – they get a kick out of it – and therefore may want to repeat that fear sensation much the same as kids who get in line over and over to ride the roller coaster at your local amusement park.
Even though that very different sensation falls short of an apocalypse it shares the same chemical lure.
The primary role of your electrochemical neurotransmitters is to create reward sensations to promote essential survival behaviors. Run-Hide-Fight are just as essential as Eat-Drink-Have Sex. The problem is that some of use mere mortals are more sensitive to certain neuroreceptors and that means we actually crave the rush (for example the immediate on-boarding of cortisol and dopamine) that come from bad behaviors.
For example, binge eating. The same electrochemical neurotransmitters that urge us to make love or fight create the same neural reactions that drive the need to excel at a 5k marathon or binge-eat to offset our recent rejection and the ensuing sadness.
Aggression is an essential trait to the survival of many species. Including humans. Because these same neurotransmitters (and the exact type and amount of each released) convey information to their neighboring neurons prompting them to act or remain dormant, the sensations are undistinguishable and the resultant cravings and rewards are identical.
I’ll delve back into the link between dopamine and cortisol in future episodes, suffice it to say that dopamine is the likely culprit to both binge eating virtually all ‘binge pathology’ that links our mood, anxiety, personality, and therefore impacts our critical decision-making skills and abilities.
I once saw a video of a group of chimpanzees encountering a snake on a trail. The startle effect was unmistakable, causing an atmospheric shift. The monks then went crazy, vocalizing and using anything they could find to strike out at the snake, working together feverishly to attack and ultimately kill the snake. None ran. All protected the other.
In this specific instance, there was no freeze or flee (common, limbic oriented survival actions) merely the fight brought on perhaps by the startle reflex and a primal sense of fear associated with one of the chimps most formidable enemies.
It’s hard to hide when the truth inside rises up like a tidal wave.
While a little anxiety can be exhilarating, too much can trigger a panic attack. Most panic attacks are brought on by sudden, exaggerated fear. You can feel as though you are losing control, sweating uncontrollably, shaking with a nauseated feeling. Finding it hard to catch your breath.
I remember my first panic attack. I thought I was dying; I was afraid and felt more scared in the moment than compared to any weapon-toting lunatic I had ever faced. I remember looking up my symptoms in web MD and finding out while frightening, the attacks weren’t dangerous. Easy to reflect on that now.
Remember that something as simple as watching the news can trigger panic or anxiety. Just like mirror neurons can artificially cause those around you to mimic your emotional stance, too much bad news can create a situation where prolonged exposure can destroy your sympathy, making it virtually impossible to empathize with the plight of others.
In closing, please remember Ryan McHenry fondly by seeing Anna and the Apocalypse. I’m trying to get my niece Brigid to turn it into a musical stage-play at her school in Grosse Pointe. Also remember the incredible actors Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming and of course Sarah Swire.
Use their bravery, cunning and resolve vicariously to motivate yourself to prepare for COVID19 or whatever next virus challenges us. Turn the dystopian or apocalyptic future the news wants you to feel that is inevitable into an opportunity to grow through training.
After all, training changes behavior.