In the dizzying hours following JFK’s assassination, while most were understandably overcome with emotion, the man right in the center of it all who suddenly found himself ascended to the Presidency, was by many accounts extremely calm.

As Robert Caro describes in “The Transition”, his gripping New Yorker article this week, LBJ’s life instantly transformed from a going-nowhere-fast Vice Presidency that was likely about to be embroiled in a kick-back scandal, to the most powerful man on the planet.  Yet in those few hours on November 22, 1963 — when he was whisked away from the shots being fired, to the hospital where JFK was pronounced dead, to Air Force One to be sworn in — he’s described generally as calm, cool, and collected.

LBJ is sworn in on Air Force One, Nov 22, 1963

We know such composure can be valuable.  But according to Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival, “only 10 to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency.”

Why?

If being calm is good in emergencies, why doesn’t it come easily to us?  Said another way, why is LBJ’s poise unusual and noteworthy even 50 years later?

Gonzales argues that stress, which releases hormones that interfere with the part of the brain that allows us to perceive our broader environment and make decisions, “causes most people to focus narrowly on the thing that they consider most important.”  Could be fight.  Could be flight.  Could be anything.  The problem is, we live in a modern world where it’s not just all about getting to safety — every day we face an infinite set of “hazards” that evolution couldn’t possibly have forseen to prepare us for.

He continues: “Emotions are survival mechanisms, but they don’t always work for the individual.  They work across a large number of trials to keep the species alive.  The individual may live or die, but over a few million years, more mammals lived than died by letting emotion take over, and so emotion was selected.  For people who are raised in modern civilization, the wilderness is novel and full of unfamiliar hazards.  To survive in it, the body must learn and adapt.”

One of those key adaptations is the ability to control one’s fear, enabling the brain to maintain its ability to perceive and make informed decisions.

Great adventurers have described this necessity in their own way.  Gonzales quotes one of the first South Pole explorers in 1910 as saying the “quality which is perhaps the only one which may be said with certainty to make for success [is] self-control.”

Shear acts of will might be required to extert self-control and overcome our ingrained instincts.  As Teddy Roosevelt wrote many years after his time in the North Dakota badlands:  “There were all kinds of things which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gunfighters; but by acting as I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”

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