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The Galvanized Gut Battles the Meek Mind

I was heading outside to take my dog for her evening duty call. I smelled something burning as I passed by my neighbor’s door in our apartment building. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I peeked in the window and saw their dog staring back at me. I stood there stymied momentarily by indecision, and felt I should get a second opinion—my husband’s. I called upstairs, “Could you come down here and tell me if you smell something burning?” He most definitely did. I went upstairs to look for the landlady’s number. He called me downstairs and asked if I saw smoke when I looked through the mail slot. I believed I did, but that may have been power of suggestion. That same suggestion saw the dog look a little panicky. I held the phone in my hand and said that maybe I should call 911. I didn’t act until he gave me the okay.   

I had a bad experience with a firefighter one time. It was a false alarm. A massively burnt batch of brownies was the culprit. As the fireman spoke calmly with my husband, I came up and asked him if I made the right call, he answered rather condescendingly as if to say, “No, you wasted our time.”

Because of that and being a bit timid by nature, I am very tentative about sounding the alarm about, well, pretty much anything. This time was no exception, so I bailed on my husband and told him I should take our dog away from the scene in case something happened. “What about our other pets?” he inquired. I did not answer, because I lacked a valid reason. Really, my motivation was to avoid an embarrassing encounter with another misogynistic (or so I perceived) fireman. So, off I went for a slow trip around the block.

I heard the sirens in the distance and immediately started to second-guess myself. What if I was mistaken? These hard-working people came out for this false alarm when there was a real emergency elsewhere. I just wasted the citizens’ tax dollars. As the trucks passed by me, I cringed and looked away, as if I could further avoid the folderol that I created with that one phone call. Of course, this was all about me at this point; it didn’t matter that my husband was there to back me up. I essentially left him to face the music alone.

As I completed my circuitous route, there were throngs of people discussing the scene while craning their necks to see what catastrophe awaited our quiet block. I worked my way through the crowd to my husband. “Our neighbors left their self-cleaning oven running,” he said immediately, “They said it would have caught fire at any time, and it is a common occurrence that is responsible for hundreds of fires every year.” Trying not to look too relieved, I asked, “So, did I make the right call?” He agreed wholeheartedly that I did. Whew! A few of the neighbors thanked me for being on top of the situation and for saving the day. Arms flew in the air. “Woohoo! You’re our hero(ine)! Hip hip, hooray!”

As I pulled the confetti out of my hair, the realization hit me that my fear of rocking the boat had potential terrible consequences. Why was I willing to risk the safety of myself and those around me (being a gas/electric oven, it probably would have exploded) to avoid embarrassment? While misery loves company, it is sadly part of human nature.

We are social beings, and with parental and societal influences, we grow to be very aware of our surroundings and how we come across to those around us. This is not to say that our perceptions are accurate. They do tend to be skewed by our own insecurities. This is a daily battle, and for some it is more challenging. Freud’s model of the psyche states that, basically, the id is awareness of the self, super-ego is awareness of society, and the ego is awareness of reality. For these purposes, the id is our instinct towards self-gratification; the super-ego is our desire for perfection; the ego acts as the mediator to apply common sense to the situation and please both attributes to the best of its abilities. 

Apparently, my id and super-ego were duking it out, and the ego intervened to save the day. The ego happened to be my husband. If you knew him, you would appreciate the glaring lack of irony in that statement.

However, I am not alone in experiencing cognitive dissonance when it comes to action or inaction in social situations. We look to each other for cues on how to act, as I did. A mother could be violently disciplining her child out in public. While we stare in horror, we are also looking at each other for affirmation that our response is valid, as well as waiting for someone to intervene. If it doesn’t happen, then nothing will be done. This of course is not always the case; there are plenty of healthy egos that tell their id and super-ego to suck it. Still, how many of you have been in a situation and were afraid to be the first to act?

That gang mentality goes both ways. Most famously, it was studied in The Stanford Prison Experiment. If operating alone, most healthy individuals would not bully and terrorize innocent people. Yet, when put in a group and one acts aggressively, it becomes much easier, if not compelling, to follow suit. Socially unacceptable behavior is more palatable if part of “the gang”, allowing us to fade anonymously into the crowd.  We also feed off each other, and it is intoxicating. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop there.

We hate to be wrong, and we shudder at the idea of there being witnesses to our lack of perfection. The super-ego wants to be right all the time, and punishes us with shame and guilt if we don’t live up to that unrealistic goal. Hence, the reason I fled the scene. I couldn’t undial 911, but I could make myself scarce just in case I acted imprudently. That was my id attempting to save face. Social acceptance is a very tempting and persuasive mistress, and we are very motivated to achieve it at the expense of other needs and wants. Studies have shown that men would rather experience close to their maximum level of physical pain than be publicly rejected by an attractive woman who they are sexually interested in. If you had a choice to be punched in the stomach or to be openly lambasted for a dissenting view, which would you choose? A surprising number of people would choose the former.

I may have painted myself into a corner with the title, or perhaps created a circular argument. The gut could be instinct, which is the id. What about the cliché that we should listen to our gut if the id is so self-serving? As the title suggests, the head would be the super-ego. Is that where emotions originate? It is difficult to think rationally when emotional. Then what is the ego? Is it an outside influence, or is it a culmination of our experiences? Call it what you will, the majority of the time the same one is declared the victor.   

And the meek shall inherit the earth.