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STATE OF EMERGENCY: Pondering the importance of big questions

What’s the difference between a problem and an emergency? Well, for starters…


“Excuse me!” I interrupted a staff member working with a client at the gym last Saturday. “There’s a guy on the floor back there. He just fell from one of the machines. A couple of guys are helping now.”

The staff member jogged to the fallen man and someone made the call. A few minutes later EMS arrived. Fifteen minutes later EMS left alone. The man apparently declined a ride to the ER for further evaluation, and EMS agreed.

I finished my workout more aware of the fragile gifts of breath and body. Health emergencies even happen at the health club.

On the way home, I listened to a few minutes of a news story discussing the state of emergency declared by Ol’ 45 the day before. I turned it off. The last thing I needed was another emergency.

Unfortunately, while driving home I found myself three cars behind a classic T-bone. A vehicle tried a quick left turn from River Road onto River Breeze Road near my house. The sedan and mini-SUV slammed into each other. I pulled off to the river side of the road, unlocked my iPhone and hit 911.

In less than 10 minutes fire rescue from Federal Point and EMS from Myrtle Grove arrived. When I left the scene, it appeared injuries to the vehicle’s occupants weren’t life-threatening, but they were more than enough for an emergency room visit.

My Saturday encounters got me thinking about emergencies. According to Webster’s an emergency is “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.” Falling out at the gym seems to meet the definition. So does a T-Bone at 45 miles per hour. Illegal immigration is a different matter.

Ol’ 45 initially asked of Congress for $5 billion to address what he termed a “national security emergency” at our southern border. The 2018 Federal Budget was $4.1 trillion. If something is a true national emergency, how far will a mere $5 billion go? Ol’ 45 said, “I could build it over a longer period of time, but I want to it faster.” That doesn’t sound like an emergency. It sounds like a recalcitrant 5-year-old saying, “I could have waited until I got to a bathroom, but I wanted to pee faster.”

The latest declared “emergency” makes my job more difficult. Much of my week is spent challenging what people see as their personal emergencies. A large part of what any psychotherapist does is help convert perceived catastrophes to problems and problems to possibilities. When problems are seen as catastrophes, our fight-flight system hijacks our reasoning and our common sense flies out the window.

An engine falling off a plane might be an emergency, but if you talk with enough skilled pilots, you’ll find a few that will say, “That’s not an emergency; that’s a problem. It’s a big problem, but I don’t see that as an emergency.”

Is illegal immigration an emergency? Is Ol’ 45 rage-tweeting threats against a free press an emergency? Is combatting climate change an emergency? Is the fact the person currently carrying the nuclear football has no grasp on the difference between an emergency and a problem? Is flirting with our darkly comic but destructive orange version of fascism a national emergency?

None of the above situations is an emergency. They are problems varying in scale and complexity, but they are not emergencies. If you voted for the current administration, you’re likely to see illegal immigration as a far bigger problem than I do. Don’t mistake: I do see illegal immigration as a problem—just not an emergency. If you didn’t vote for this administration, you’re likely to see climate change and Ol’ 45’s fitness for duty to be high-priority problems. As much as I’d like to scream, “The house is on fire!” on both counts, it’s not. We’re not cooked yet.

Even fascism isn’t an emergency. I see it as a problem we can convert into possibilities for strengthening our republic. I  can only hope you see fascism as a problem, too, not a solution.

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