|By Hung Su Steve Sampson and Jim Hampton|
The night of 9-11, I slept fitfully, dreaming of pursuit, awakening after midnight to switch on CNN and watch the hypnotic orange flames dancing at ground zero.
That was the worst. Your fears are always magnified after midnight, and jitterbug on the walls like giant shadows cast by those hellish flames. Civilization seemed to be burning in that fire, and, for all I knew, maybe it was.
Better, then, that next afternoon, sitting on the steps of the deck, but still feeling as if an asteroid had knocked the planet off its axis.
I'd have been chain-smoking if I hadn’t stopped three years before.
Instead I just sat and looked at the yard, and was quietly surprised.
The birds weren’t migrating in panic, they were just singing. The sky was an untroubled clarion blue. The trees nodded and murmured regally, as usual. The dark green of their late-summer leaves shifted and swayed to form patterns of dappled sunlight, as rhythmically soothing as waves on the ocean.
The world was as it always was. Nothing had changed it. Nothing could. And I thought it was trying to tell me something, if I had the wit to understand.
This juxtaposition — the calm, measured solidity of the natural world standing in contrast to the mad panic of human events — tugged at something in my memory. What was it?
I recalled my long-ago ethics class with Frank Taylor at Eastern Illinois University. Young and eager to know what the greatest human minds had discovered, I'd been particularly impressed by Taylor's discussion of the practical philosophy of the Stoics, people like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics were keenly aware that it isn’t events themselves that ordinarily affect us — it’s our emotional reaction to events that rules us.
Emotional reactions, grounded in past traumatic associations, are automatic and often inappropriate responses to new and changing circumstances. If we could govern our reflexive emotional reactions to situations we regard as adverse, we could be calmer, happier. Our psychological and philosophical standard of living would rise.
The lesson was there before me in birdsong, patiently waiting for me to listen.