Why Did People Stand Around on 9/11?

“We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.
We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even — or perhaps especially — in an emergency.” — Steven Grosz The Examined Life

This was a psychoanalyst’s reaction to why a patient, Marissa Panigrosso, fled the World Trade Center on 9/11 immediately, while others didn’t.

“Why is everyone standing around?” she remembered saying.

“What struck Marissa Panigrosso as odd is, in fact, the rule. Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around.”

Everybody knows change is scary. But that’s usually because the status quo is safe. What if the status quo is a burning building?

It’s the most extreme, tragic example. But it’s illustrative. Whatever problems we have … they’re burning buildings, just at a snail’s pace. Smoking? The building probably won’t collapse for 20+ years, but it’ll probably collapse. Bad relationship? Burning, might make it a year. Commoditizable job? Burning, might take the robots 15 years to destroy it.

Stories help. It helps to read a book about the uncertainty you’re afraid of, talk to a friend, or even write your own. Stories are scripts for real life … well, rough drafts.

Even if the fire is small, we have to treat it as if it’s urgent. Because otherwise we’ll wake up one day and act like we didn’t see it coming, when we were just afraid to walk outside because it was a bit cold.

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