A satyr god dozes among the sun-drenched trees. The sun, dragged by the chariot of this god’s shining uncle warms the fur that covers his goat’s legs. Some creature disturbs the sleeping Pan. He rouses, blasting a thoughtless, dire warning into his pipe, and the creatures of the woods scramble. They race from the warning, tripping over each other, breaking legs, snaring themselves in gnarled bushes, abandoning their mates or sleeping children because that fierce whistle sparked their brains into terror before they had time to think. They panicked.
Etymology is a beautiful thing. We learn that the term panic, a descriptor for that sudden and all-consuming fear that rips conscious thought from even the most stoic soul, is derived from the name of the wood god Pan via a word bridge from the Greek panikon. This is wild, woolly Pan’s enduring contribution to the world: a name for the animalistic fight-or-flight but mostly flight response to sudden fear.
I try to find the value in it. Surely, if such a feature persists through the millennia of humanity, it must have value. Is it the fight-or-flight response? No, because that is a poor description. Panicked people do not often fight. Often, they do not even flee. They mostly collapse in on themselves in a babbling, dazed, unthinking, unfeeling, incapable ghost of a person. They stop being a person. They stop being, at all. Is it the reversion to a primal instinct that preserves, if no one else’s, then at least their own life?
Saudi Arabia redesigned holy Mecca’s layout to eliminate the annual stampedes that killed 250 pilgrims. Special Forces operators around the world spend thousands of training hours and millions of dollars to train the mind to turn not inward but outward, to the group, training, and the objective, in panic-inducing moments of extreme stress and risk. Panic is so reliable a predictor of death that cave peoples hunted woolly mammoths by using fire to induce mass panic and drive the behemoths over cliffs. The only reliable feature of this satyr’s curse is self-destruction
Panic, I think, is the abdication of life. You abandon reason, emotion, and beneficial instinct as primal fear infests your soul. It is a willful breaking of yourself as a link in the chain of life. It is isolation from existence. You become a berserker run amok without allegiance. You are a destroyer.
My baby brother died. It was sudden, a head-on collision on a bright October morning. He was dead before they evacuated him to the hospital but they tried anyways. Pan blasts his damned pipe inside the hollow of my chest while I type this. His perverse siren song induces me, as I imagine those prehistoric hunters induced the terrified mammoths with fires and noise, to abdicate. Stop typing. Stop thinking of this. Shut down. I feel blank spots between my thoughts as my mind struggles to keep the lights on. Except, there is nowhere to flee. Where would I go?
We reached the Emergency Department ten minutes after my terrified mom called. We gave the nurse details, showed her pictures of him, and waited. He came in without ID. My brother and his wife arrived. More family. My parents. More brothers. My chest tightened, hardened, released in terrible vacuum, and the cycle repeated. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. No fight, no flight, only wait. We stayed. There was nowhere else to be. The next few days waxed into monsoons of pain, awareness, and shock before waning into a somber quiet that teased normalcy. There was none. There is none. We had no choice because to panic, to detach ourselves from the chain of life, would have done more harm in that awful moment/week/now than at any other point in our varied lives. We should not have been anywhere else in the world than engaged with each painful moment. We needed each other to be present.
That is the trick of panic: it entices you most when you need it least. That knowledge may be a natural gift but feels like a counter-instinctive lesson learned. I don’t care. There is never a time to panic. When you feel your vision shrinking into a narrow hallways, your words turning to slush on the way to hard ice, and your almost numb body screaming at you to run, turn and look at the piping satyr god in the field and be there. The folks there will need you and you’ll need you, too.