• Robb G. Best

General Custer, Bath Mats, and Moths

When General George Armstrong Custer made the ill-fated decision to charge his 700 troops into the heart of the Lakota Nation on June 25th 1876, it represented a pretty steep learning curve for the General—steep and deadly.

Neuroscientists know that extreme events that end in failure will create memories that tend to stick with us. Since your brain is built to keep you alive, it recruits your hippocampus and amygdala to remember those moments that put you at risk in the hope that you will recognize the same pattern and avoid it in the future. That is, of course, if you manage to live through the situation the first time around.

Each of us can witness a whole host of these events. Car crashes, break ups, bad weekends in Vegas—you get the idea. Your brain makes those kinds of memories available to you at all times, unlike your misplaced hotel room key or the new password for your Amazon account.

A moth, on the other hand, does not seem to have the benefit of the old amygdala/ hippocampus team to keep track of important painful events from its past. To quote the great Aimee Mann,

“The Moth don't care when he sees the flame.

He might get burned, but he's in the game.

And once he's in, he can't go back, he'll

Beat his wings 'til he burns them black...”

Unfortunately there are “moth men” among us. We recognize the pattern and know it probably doesn’t make sense to ride into the arms of 2000 angry Lakota warriors. Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves, and we’re seduced by the flame.

Once, on a fateful trip with my beloved ex brother-in-law, he turned the wrong way down a one-way street. Everyone in the car shouted in unison, “It’s a one way street!”

His cool response: “They don’t mean me.”

For him, at least at that moment, he was able to defy the gravity of the street signs that once weighed him down. He had no fear of the flame.

This is a dangerous place to find yourself, as Custer probably realized a little to late.

This morning in my hotel room when I pulled back the shower curtain, I noticed a rubber bath mat rolled up in the corner of the tub, patiently waiting for the next user. There was a time when I would scoff at a bath mat. Clearly they didn’t mean me, because bathmats were for the dentures-and-canes crowd. That is, until a morning last year when I showered, sans mat, and turned around too quickly. I discovered myself being hurled butt-first out of the shower--but not before I ricocheted off the front edge of the toilet on my way through the bathroom doorway.

As I lay dripping on the hotel floor carpet, gasping for breath and certain that I’d broken my back, I wondered how I was going to explain this to whoever had the bad fortune to find me. I expect Custer had the same reaction as the Lakota chased him to the top of the hill where he made his famous last stand. The difference being I escaped with a pretty nasty butt bruise, and Custer--well, we all know how that turned out for him.

That is why I shun the moth man label, and why not a day goes by that I don’t give thanks to my amygdala and hippocampus for watching over me and reminding me to be vigilant and keep a keen eye peeled for deadly patterns--be they lions, tigers, or bath mats.

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