new emotions

That Feeling When Your Fight-or-Flight Response Has No Fight

Illustration: Zohar Lazar

This week, the Cut is exploring a scientific theory that suggests we have infinite emotions, so long as we can name them — and so we did, asking writers to identify new ways to feel.

Force Majeure: A vague sense of humiliation that accompanies an instinctual flight response to a perceived danger.

It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday night, and I’m heading home after an evening teaching at Tibet House. I’m walking down Seventh Avenue toward the subway when suddenly, out of the shadows, someone is jostling my left side. He’s poking and prodding me, almost affectionately, through my winter coat. His voice is soft at first, in my ear, insistent. “Who are you working for?” he demands. Then, “Why are you looking at me?”

I squirm away, but he stays close, almost hugging me. “I’m not working for anyone,” I say. “And I wasn’t looking at you.” His tone becomes more menacing, and I break away and run, clutching my book bag, yelling to him now that I don’t know him, heading for the subway entrance. As I turn the corner, he catches up and grabs me. “Who are you working for?” he murmurs again, a lilt to his voice. He pushes into me, grabbing me; he won’t let go. A passerby notices our strange dance but just keeps walking. I pull out of his grip and jog down the stairs, but then think better of it — he is right behind me. I turn, push past him toward the street, when he catches me again. Then suddenly two extremely young policemen are running toward us, barking at him to stop. They grab him and yank his hands behind his back. One cop makes eye contact with me for a split second and asks if I am okay. “Yes,” I say, before spinning away, heart racing, and rushing down the stairs to the train.

Thank goodness he didn’t have a knife; he was clearly paranoid, I thought afterward. But a gnawing self-doubt hung over the whole experience. Did I do something to pull his dark energy to me? Shouldn’t I have seen him coming? Was running away the best choice I could’ve made? Should I have talked myself out of his grip, or at least stayed to speak to the police once they intervened?

I’d wanted to pretend that the whole thing had not happened, but the feeling it evoked stuck around. I thought of the film Force Majeure, in which a man runs away from his family to save himself from an avalanche and thereby is diminished by his fear. I looked up the phrase; it means “superior, or irresistible, force … a natural or unavoidable catastrophe that interrupts the expected course of events.” In legal terms, it exempts participants from culpability, but it did not do that for me. I felt relieved but sullied, wondering about my instinct for self-preservation. My fight-or-flight response was all flight. I couldn’t stop feeling as if I’d done something wrong.

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That Feeling When Your Fight-or-Flight Response Has No Fight