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I may need a little help with this one, notably from people who know something about physical reactions to stress.  The instruction in the title is given to airplane passengers by the pilot when, after announcing “Mayday ! Mayday !” (“m’aider” : “help me” in French) to the control tower, he warns everyone on board to prepare themselves for an imminent crash-landing.

When I hear this precautionary, well-intentioned advice from the easy-Jet hostess before take-off, I always wonder, if I had to endure the shock of such an impact, whether it would be a good idea for me to bend over and become rigid as suggested.  I always thought that babies and drunks who fall out of windows often survive because they are totally relaxed.  Mind you, it would seem that an involuntary, spontaneous reaction to imminent danger is to tighten one’s muscles.  I remember once being really “uptight” on a helicopter flight in the Australian Outback, where because of the overall weight of the people on board, the pilot and we three burly passengers, the doors had been removed to keep within regulation weight-limits.  I found myself for once totally speechless and white-knuckled, as I tried to avoid falling out of that infernal machine by clutching the bar in front of me.  I didn’t need anyone to say “Brace !  Brace !”.  I was doing what came naturally to the weak-kneed coward that I am.

Most of us have to face crises sometime in our lives.  When the terrorist tells me to “speak down the barrel, please”, I would like to think that I will find the courage and the composure to keep my cool.  The bullet, I imagine, would hurt even more if my muscles are tense.  Or will I be dead without feeling anything ?

We more often face threatening situations which are not physical.  Atheists confronting ruby-faced Rednecks shouting at us in a debate about religious beliefs would do well to try to keep calm.  Our self-control might even disarm them, though it could also add to their anger.  Either way, in such a situation, we are well-advised not to “brace” ourselves, but to master our temptation to raise our voice if not our fists, thereby preventing his fury from becoming contagious.  Dialogues of the Deaf and shouting or slugging matches never get an opponent to change his mind.

This said, we have absolutely no control over airplanes about to crash or religious fanatics incapable or unwilling to engage in a civilized expression of disagreement.  No point in bracing yourself before a crash nor giving yourself ulcers trying to convince fanatics of their blindfaithblindfolly.