It can grab you like the jaws of a shark, but it’s just as likely to rise like a coming storm. It starts with a realization that something’s amiss, something important. You look around your immediate space, hoping for deus ex machina, and when simple succor cannot be satisfied, your breathing grows shallow. That tightness you feel in your neck spreads into your shoulders, falls down your arms and as you start gyrating in mind and space your hands flap as if trying to shake off this new, pernicious, descending liquid .
Now your heart rate has caught up to your accelerating agitation, and hopeful desire begins to transform into genuine dread. You check the stuff you just checked a moment ago, as if your urgency will make the universe acquiesce. You circle the space, you pinch your lips, you circle the space again.
You rationalize. Perhaps you even mentally sift through absurd, ethically corrupt targets of blame, ways you can push off responsibility to some other hapless source. Then you circle your space again and the tension in your body begins to turn heavy, as despair begins to fall like a fog, like a sackcloth.
Panic isn’t simply the challenge of new soldiers on their first deployments. It isn’t reserved for sports stars on the verge of blowing the big play. Panic is also the moment when a sculptor fears he may have cracked a precious piece of marble. Panic is when you realize the rental car keys in your pocket have mysteriously vanished.
I could try and convince you about how moments of panic are moments of potential, about how these are the moments when success is made by rising above adversity, fortune favoring the bold, that sort of thing. Perhaps someday I’ll write that essay.
What I will say instead is that panic is inevitable only if you’re trying to do something real with your life in the first place. I’m not saying it’s a “good” thing or a “bad” thing; I’m saying that those who never experience it have never tried hard enough at anything.
Even the most boring life will bump into panic from time to time. Brakes fail on even the best cars driven by the safest drivers, yielding instant, horrifying panic. But the sense of overwhelming horror that bites down hard is one thing if it’s from completely external sources, and another thing if it’s attached to internal engines. Panic isn’t simply fear. Panic is a loss of control.
It’s a tricky beast, and all things going well, one that we only encounter on rare occasions. Some people get hooked at living on the edge, always chasing the freaky buzz of surviving one more potential catastrophe. That’s may be an option for some, but generally philosophical anathema to me. Instead, in the awful feeling that attends panic is always a transformative moment. It reminds us that creativity is always about remaking the world, in big ways or small. That comes with risk, and like those missing car keys, sometimes those risks are only barely connected to the creation we’re trying to bring to life in the first place. Fear keeps us from ever venturing outside; panic terrifies us into sudden realization that the world really is dangerous.
Yep. It is. But without your participation in it, without your willingness to remake it, your other feelings will probably never be as rich, or vibrant, or suffused with invention.
Panic’s horrible grip may be one moment away from the abyss. There’s no pretending otherwise, and there’s nothing pleasurable about it. But if you survive, remember the feeling. Someday that recollection may be the best way for you to differentiate what’s simply hard from what’s genuinely mortal.