I’m too young to remember the September 11th terrorist attacks. From what I’ve been told, my mother, unlike the other parents, left me in class to finish out the day with the understanding that it was less safe at home than at school. Nonetheless, she was in shock from witnessing the attack on the Twin Towers and their subsequent reduction to mere rubble and ashes and ruins. She was glued to the television set for days, desperate to learn of who the culprits were, while my brother and I remained largely oblivious to the incident until we were ready to hear about it.
I bring up 9/11 not only because I don’t know how I would’ve reacted to seeing something so monumentally disturbing unfold before my very eyes at this age, but because it aligns with a dream I experienced three weeks ago.
In the dream, my parents were driving me to work. Along the way, we encountered a roadblock where multiple firefighters, police officers, and paramedics were responding to an unidentified emergency situation. I recall, quite vividly, peeking out of my right window and seeing broken shards of glass littered across the street and a wrecked, early-2000s sports car, hinting that an accident had just taken place. Upon further examination, I spotted a bloodied, mangled corpse lying on the ground. Then, my stomach churned. Blood rushed from my brain to my bodily extremities. And I woke up. The aftermath of the car accident of which I had been an observer was something more real than real but, paradoxically, less real than real. It was something uncanny. Something visceral.
The word “visceral” is my favorite word in the English language. It describes anything that arouses very primitive, low-level emotions unbound by logic or reason. It is the adjectival version of “viscera,” another word used to collectively describe large internal organs and, more informally, the bowels and intestines. In this way, to perceive something visceral is to feel it “in your gut,” only to have it work its way upward to the logic-processing centers of your brain. (To be clear, this gut feeling is modulated by what is known as the enteric nervous system, the intermediary between the brain and central nervous system that exchanges information relating to stress, hunger, sexual desire, and other functions.)
Now, do me a favor for a moment. Put yourself in the shoes of a typical New Yorker on his way to a run-of-the-mill but important business meeting. He grabs his morning cup of joe, his briefcase in one hand and coffee mug in the other, and takes a brisk stroll past the park and to the city block when, all of a sudden, a plane comes out of nowhere and collides with what was an American economic powerhouse just seconds ago. At first, it looks cartoony to him, almost as if the sight of the plane colliding with the tower bent and twisted his very conception of the reality in which he inhabits, or used to inhabit. But then, some thoughts occur to him: What if my colleagues were in there? Are my children safe? Where are my children right now, anyway? Where did that plane come from? What is happening right now?!!
That said, the businessman’s thoughts that dripped with those elemental feelings of fear, terror, anxiety, paranoia, shock, and confusion emanated from the very simple but very disorienting experience of watching the initial plane collide with one of the Twin Towers. Moreover, they mobilized him to fight or flee from the scene and, if he’s resourceful enough, deliberate about saving unsuspecting passersby caught in the middle of the chaos. This step-by-step psychophysiological process is consistent with the James-Lange theory of emotion, which states that feeling only proceeds, but does not precede, perceiving. So, I don’t realize that I’m fearful or confused or in shock until after my brain has perceived a fearful, confusing, or shocking stimulus – in this case, a plane crashing into a tower. But what does this mean for you?
I’m sure that you can relate to that pit in your stomach you get from witnessing something whose emotional potency well exceeds your capacity for logical reasoning (like 9/11). It’s the same feeling you get when your boss calls you into his office to tell you to pack up your things, go home, and never return. But it’s also the same feeling you get when that cute coworker, whom you’ve been crushing on for months, agrees to go on a date with you. Thus, this feeling, whatever it is, does not “bullsh*t around” — it tells you exactly what you need to know without having to fruitlessly speculate upon the logical dimensions to it.
Listen to your gut when it speaks up. Because it can tell you a lot about what you cannot always intuit.