In Defense of Fainting

June 24, 2001 --
In Defense of Fainting by William Loizeaux was originally published in the journal, The American Scholar. It is reprinted with permission. The American Scholar is a quarterly journal of literature, science, and culture, which has been published for a general readership since 1932 by the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

In Defence of Fainting Audio It's happened any number of times and in any number of unfortunate places, but the one that comes first to mind was during my freshman year at a small college in upstate New York, in October 1971. We all had a science requirement to fulfill, and because I had heard it was easy, I enrolled in a class called Microbes and Man. It met at 10:00 a.m. in a huge lecture hall not far from my dorm.

I was then at the stage-one from which I have still not entirely emerged-when I desperately wanted to fit into the world in which I found myself. I wore desert boots, bell-bottom jeans, and Oxford shirts with tails fluttering out. I wanted to be smooth, smart, and vaguely athletic. I wanted to take life in stride. I wanted to talk casually with sophisticated girls from Long Island and Bronxville who, beneath their white peasant blouses, didn't bother to wear bras.

So there I sat with my cool, nervy dorm mates in Microbes and Man. Two aisles with stairs divided the lecture hall, which must have held two hundred other freshmen, and I was smack in the middle of them, maybe thirty feet from each aisle. I was writing away in a spiral notebook. Amazingly, I still have it. When I recently exhumed it from a box in our basement, I was struck by the neatness of my youthful handwriting and perplexed that at no point did it falter, go haywire, or fade. I can't find a hint of the moment of dissolution that still looms so large in my mind.

The lecture was well under way, I'm sure of that, though I don't remember what it was about. Maybe typhus, trichinosis, dysentery, yellow fever, or syphilis, all of which had earned the course its unofficial title of Worms, Germs, and Sperms. At any rate, and for no reason that I can figure out, the professor began to describe how cattle were killed in slaughterhouses in the days before the invention of those fancy, high-voltage electric zappers. He said that men would stand on the rungs of livestock pens. One by one, using sledgehammers, they'd strike the cattle between the eyes.

It was probably only a brief digression, but I couldn't get it out of my head. As I kept seeing the burly men swinging their hammers like Reggie Jackson, and saw the wide, dumb eyes of the cattle, each going cross-eyed as the sledge approached its mark . . . as I kept seeing all this, over and over and over, my heart leaped like a squirrel in a sack; I was cold but sweating; my throat was dry; the lecture hall was gray and spinning; and this, considering my immediate surroundings, seemed like the very worst thing: I felt the upwelling of my sausage breakfast and what doctors call, in their peculiar language, "an acute urinary urgency."

But I didn't succumb. Not yet. Not there. I don't usually succumb on the spot. For a moment, something deeply courageous or cowardly kicked in, like adrenaline or turbocharging. I was with my new dormmates. Those girls from Bronxville were somewhere in the hall. Before I'd do something awfully uncool, I had to get out of there.

Still seeing and hearing the bellowing cattle, I scrambled over shins, backpacks, notebooks, and laps, clawing toward the aisle. I got there and staggered up the stairs, falling down while clambering up. I careened out of the hall and bounced off a wall in the lobby, upsetting a plastic potted plant and a framed print of Louis Pasteur. Then I plowed through the doors to the world outside, where all the light went black.

Among doctors, it's called "vasovagal syncope," the most common form of what the rest of us call "fainting." Extreme fatigue, pain, injury, fear, or (my specialty) emotional stress gets the crazy process going. The heart revs briefly; the blood pressure soars. Then the vagus nerve leaps into the fray. That's the long nerve that, in my Gray's Anatomy, snakes down from the head and branches out to the larynx, throat, windpipe, lungs, heart, stomach, and pancreas, and, through tiny "efferent fibers," reaches all the way down (significantly, as we shall see) to the lowly sexual organs. It's one of the body's main trunk lines, and its job, like a teacher on playground duty, is to keep things from getting out of hand. When overstimulated, however, like that frazzled teacher, it clamps down hard on all the action. The heart slows to a crawl. Vessels dilate. Pressure plummets. Blood, unpumped, goes where gravity takes it-to your legs and bum if you're standing or seated, and away from your brain. All this can be exacerbated if you're feeling hungry, nervous, or stuck in a crowded, stuffy place. Within seconds, your face turns the color of ash, your stomach quakes, your legs go wimbly, and everything sways and fades.

Never a favored form of expression among men, fainting once enjoyed a currency among certain women as a badge of patrician sensitivity. My grandmother, for example, would fall into a swoon, or at least stagger toward the tufted divan, upon hearing bad news or what she called "crude language." But alas, my grandmother is long gone. So too the languid wrist to the forehead; the embroidered handkerchief stuffed up the sleeve; the hand fan whipped out, fast as a switchblade; the smelling salts (in that mysterious little glass phial!) at the ready in the purse. With the women's movement, fainting lost its charisma, its distinction, its charm. Imagine fainting flat out in the boardroom or at a committee meeting. Then imagine being proud of it! It's embarrassing, undignified, and terribly unprofessional, your legs all funny like that.

So who will be the standard-bearer for fainting? Who will celebrate such losses of power and control? Who will stand tall for falling down? Who will even acknowledge it?

The authors of medical studies inform us that about 30 percent of us-equally divided between women and men-have at least felt faint without any underlying illness, and 10 percent of us, at one time or another, have actually hit the deck. Fainting accounts for 1.5 million doctor visits and 160,000 hospitalizations annually. So, in fact, people are still passing out all over the place, though no one seems to want to admit it or to band together in common cause. Where I live, there are hundreds of self-help groups for people with almost any condition or concern, from chocolate addicts to Chihuahua breeders. But not a one for fainters.

To find out about fellow fainters, you could ask your friends very elliptically, or, as I'd suggest, you could start with people you know in the medical profession. They have stories to tell. Nurses, for instance, are always scraping blood donors off floors, often before anyone's rolled up a sleeve. Or they'll tell you about those sensitive fathers who faint in delivery rooms, often draping their helpful, inert selves all over their laboring wives. Then, to prevent anything of the kind from happening again, these same gallant fathers march off to vasectomy clinics, where-voilů!-they repeat the performance as soon as they see the shining instruments. Older men sometimes faint while urinating. This is called "micturition syncope," a particular problem for fainters who pee off boats: they follow their urine seaward. "Heat stroke," a misnomer, is yet another form of fainting, usually involving dehydration. And then there's the case of Michael Lasalandra of Massachusetts, who, while watching Seinfeld one night, laughed so hard that he fainted three times. The act of fainting while laughing thereby earned the name-no kidding-"Seinfeld Syncope."

Another place to find fainters is in the back pages of newspapers, in those little local articles tucked among the furniture ads and cures for baldness. Here you'll discover people who tip over at weddings, Kiwanis dinners, sales meetings-and sometimes at burials, right into the grave. Commuters faint while waiting for late trains, and teenagers at Aerosmith concerts. Opera stars tumble off stages. Usually they're mezzo-sopranos. Kids faint during school, especially around exam time, and after school in airless shopping malls. But our overburdened court system has the largest caseload. At inquests, verdicts, and sentencings, distraught defendants and/or plaintiffs (and I've heard of one lawyer) routinely collapse under the weight of justice.

If it involves a celebrity or other well-known person, a fainting will hit the headlines. On a visit to the California Pavilion at Expo '86, Princess Diana fainted as state officials were showing her what must have been a fascinating bicycle exhibit. "She fell to the floor," California governor George Deukmejian told reporters afterward. Then he remarked on an extraordinary achievement: "She fainted very gracefully."

Such grace was not manifested two years later by ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, now the Baroness Thatcher. In the middle of a speech on a warm day in Santiago, Chile, the baroness suddenly stopped and stared at her notes. Then, say news accounts, her eyes closed, and her face fell on the microphone.

Lest you think that fainting in high office is solely an English phenomenon, consider our recent attorney general, Janet Reno. During her term in office, she swooned at least twice-and neither episode was related to her Parkinson's disease. The first occurred on November 25, 1997, during a law enforcement conference in Mexico City. At a reception, she teetered and was helped to the floor by a staff member-a more or less normal, secular fainting. The second, though, was something else again, as it may have involved the Holy Spirit. On Sunday, September 27, 1998, Reno was standing in the front row of the Full Gospel AME Zion Church in Washington, D.C., holding hands with people on either side. According to the Washington Post, the choir had just sung "Lord Lift Him Up," and Reverend John A. Cherry was praying for the country and for the attorney general. His voice rose. People shouted "Praise God!" and "Thank you Lord!" Then, in the words of the Post reporter, "There was clapping and swaying as the prayer grew louder, and amid the noise and the motion, Reno slumped down into her chair, her eyes closed and for a moment her body went limp."

By far the most dramatic high-level faint in recent history was performed on January 8, 1992, by President George H. W. Bush. You might remember this one because Japanese television recorded the august event, and it was rebroadcast around the world. Before the toast at a state dinner at the home of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, President Bush, with his wife, Barbara, at his side, suddenly turned white and vomited toward a floral centerpiece. Unconscious, he slithered off his chair and came to rest under the table. Security officers sprang to his aid, as did Miyazawa. On the film clip, you can see the Prime Minister crouching with Bush's head lolling in his lap, as Barbara, standing with a napkin or towel in hand, appears ready to tidy up. Ten months later, in a not unrelated event, the country voted George Bush out of office. Compared with the lusty, faint-free Bill Clinton, the guy with regurgitated food on his tie just didn't have a chance. He was, in a word, a "wimp."

Indeed, just look at the words we associate with fainting. My desk dictio- nary equates "faint" with "lacking in courage and spirit: cowardly." In the Oxford English Dictionary, to faint is "to lose heart or courage, be afraid, become depressed, give way, flag"; to "grow weak or feeble, decline"; "to fall short"; "to droop, sink into." Other synonyms include "sluggish," "timid," "shirking," "lazy." To these my thesaurus adds "fail," "fade," and "impotent." Not a kind word in the lot.

So no wonder fainting has been stigmatized, shunned, and forced underground. No wonder no one will admit to it. But hold on just a second. Something doesn't compute. Wasn't this teetering Janet Reno the same one who served longer than any other attorney general in history? And wasn't this the same Princess Di who would mobilize world opinion for the prohibition of land mines? Wasn't this waxen-faced George Bush the same one who, confronted with Iraq's aggression in 1990, rallied us to victory in the Gulf War? And wasn't this drooping Margaret Thatcher the same one who, by force, ejected the Argentines from the Falkland Islands, and who also stiffened our resolve against Iraq, declaring, "This is no time to go wobbly!"?

Here I propose a modest theory: that fainting and feats of stamina or heroism are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they go hand in hand, inseparably intertwined. One of the great secrets of civilization is that heroes, too, are fainters. In fact, many have allowed us glimpses of their swooning selves, if we care to look closely.

Take Odysseus. Hardly a wimp-just ask Penelope's suitors. But for all the wounds he can sustain, and for all the arrows he can shoot through a hoop or a man's chest, brave Odysseus is still a fainter. His vagus nerve gets the best of him. In Book V of the Odyssey, he sets off from Calypso's island on a raft, heading safely home to Ithaca, he thinks. Instead, Poseidon intercepts him and whips up a huge storm that shatters the raft. For three days thereafter, Odysseus swims toward the land of the Phaeacians. He makes it, barely, and then, according to the Alexander Pope translation, he collapses with all the aplomb of George Bush-though he has the sense to do it out of camera range.

That moment, fainting as he touch'd the shore, He dropp'd his sinewy arms: his knees no more Perform'd their office, or his weight upheld: His swoln heart heaved; his bloated body swell'd: From mouth and nose the briny torrent ran; And lost in lassitude lay all the man, Deprived of voice, of motion, and of breath; The soul scarce waking in the arms of death.

How exhilarating to hear fainting described in such lofty and dignifying tones-indeed, in heroic couplets! But there's more. Odysseus soon awakens from his faint, and this is what he finds:

A mossy bank with pliant rushes crown'd; The bank he press'd, and gently kiss'd the ground; Where on the flowery herb as soft he lay . . .

Odysseus's world has utterly changed: from tumultuous sea to mossy, kissable bank; from the wrath of Poseidon to the pliant hospitality of Phaeacia, where he will soon be tended by the "blooming" virgin goddess Nausicaa and her bevy of sporting nymphs. With their snowy limbs bathed in ambrosial oil and their shining veils unbound, they feed him, clothe him, and offer to bathe him. They're as fetching as any girls from Bronxville.

Tell me now that fainting is such a bad thing! In a fix you pass out, and when you awaken, you're surrounded by these babes in the woods. You're a magnet for sympathy and soft ministrations, the center of a world that has reorganized around you. For Odysseus, fainting is a door that leads to a bower of renewal, from which he will continue his journey.

Even some of our biblical heroes go rubbery-legged, and others faint outright. "David waxe[s] faint," according to my King James version, when he faces the giant Ishi-benob many years after slaying Goliath. And Daniel, after his disturbing vision of the ram and the goat, hits the canvas before getting up, dusting himself off, and admirably going about his business. Esther, though, is the undisputed champ of biblical swooners-that is, if you read the Apocrypha. With flair, finesse, and exquisite timing, her faints inspire the intervention of God, get her out of a tight jam, and save her people.

Esther is the Jewish wife of King Ahasuerus of Persia. When she hears of Haman's decree to wipe out the Jews, she has the nerve to intercede-unsummoned!-before the king, who sits upon the throne in all his terrifying majesty. Here's how the Apocrypha tells it:

Lifting his face, flushed with splendor, he [the king] looked at her [Esther] in fierce anger. And the queen faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed upon the head of the maid who went before her. Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. And he comforted her with soothing words.

Like Odysseus's, Esther's situation is suddenly and dramatically improved by fainting. God, under full sail, comes to the rescue. The king is made gentle and-responsive, cuddly husband that he's suddenly become-he leaps off his throne to help her.

But it turns out that the king's soothing words still leave something to be desired. He tries to comfort Esther by detaching her fate from that of the Jews: "Take courage; you shall not die, for our law [Haman's decree] applies only to the people"-and not, presumably, to royalty. Yet this, for Esther, just doesn't do. The world hasn't changed enough. So she faints. Again! A double faint! And this one does the whole trick. The once-angry king is now eager to do her bidding. He's in the palm of her clammy hand: "What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request?" he asks as she comes to for the second time. So she induces him to invite Haman to a banquet, thus beginning the extraordinary chain of events that will end with Haman's hanging and the first celebration of Purim.

It is important for fainters to remember this history, especially at times of loneliness and doubt. As they say again and again in those self-help groups: You are not alone! Our individual wobblings, no matter how various, are part of a great ongoing tradition. As brethren, we link limp arms across the centuries: you, me, Odysseus, Esther, and George H. W. Bush. We invoke the names of our forebears. Their stories validate our own. They live in our bones as we clatter down; they are with us when we arise.

And arise we do. Always. That is the wonder of fainting. We ensure our renewal by falling down. It's as simple as gravity, a medical fact. Once you're on the floor, the blood that pooled in your legs and bum rushes home to your brain. The heart quickens. Pressure mounts. Color begins to return to your face. Breathing deepens. Your eyes flutter open, and the world flickers back, a better one than you left.

I could tell lots more fainting stories of my own. Many involve some graphic description of pain or injury to man, woman, child, or beast. Others involve the contemplation of some bodily activity that, at the time, I would rather not have thought about. As a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, for example-a boy forging his way into manhood!-I keeled over at the very climax of a sex education class. And then there was the time I drove to a local hospital to pick up a friend who had just passed a kidney stone. When I entered her room, a doctor was excitedly describing the stone, where it had lodged, and what tricky surgical procedure he'd have performed if it hadn't dislodged. Need I say that I was soon careening down a hallway, from wall to wall to metal chair to floor, leading with my face? Need I say that it was I, rather than my friend, who would now require hospital attention? And that it was she who would finally drive me home, while I slumped, bandaged and bewildered, in the passenger seat of my own car?

Here I'll go straight to the mother of all my fainting stories, the one that, in my modest life, most partakes of and extends the great tradition of Odysseus and Esther.

Ten years ago, my wife and I were having difficulty conceiving a child, so on a cold February morning, I found myself in Columbia Women's Hospital in Washington, D.C., in front of a pair of swinging doors with a sign featuring a black microscope above the word Lab. In my hand I held a small note from my wife's gynecologist. It contained this simple, declarative, and disquieting sentence: "Perform semen analysis." I drew a deep breath and marched through the doors.

Inside was a waiting room that smelled of antiseptic. Blue vinyl chairs. Glass-topped tables. And the whole place was filled with women-sitting, dozing, peering into magazines or compacts, or standing in line at a receptionist's window, holding small, clear plastic cups of urine that they'd hand to the receptionist, who in turn would pass them to a technician to be analyzed.

There wasn't another male in sight until, as I moved toward the receptionist's window, a man in a pin-striped suit strode through a small white door and cut in front of me. In his hand he had one of those plastic cups, inside of which was some sort of crumpled plastic bag, pinched at the top with a rubber band. In the bag was evidence that he had accomplished what I, too, had come here to do. He held the cup like a glass of Scotch, swirling it to get the ice melting.

When I reached the window, I handed my note to the receptionist with all the apparent nonchalance of the man in the pin-striped suit. The receptionist was a stunning Caribbean woman with ropy dreadlocks and long, lacquered nails. With a Magic Marker, she wrote my name on a cup, placed a rolled plastic packet inside, and handed it to me through the wide slot in the window. With her nails, she directed me toward the door from which the pin-striped man had emerged. "Bring it back here when you're done," she said, as if she had just lent me a screwdriver. So I moved toward the white door, cup in hand, now feeling the first tinglings, the first hints of numbness, along the cool insides of my arms.

But I would do this. For my wife, for our progeny, for us. The door was closed, so I knocked.

"Busy!" someone called from within, as people glanced up from their magazines. Then a moment later a woman emerged, smiling awkwardly, brimming cup in hand.

I walked in briskly and locked the door. It was a small bathroom with no windows. A toilet. A simple shelf and mirror above a sink. The smell of bleach. The floor white. The ceiling white. The walls white. Everything white, except for a large, glossy poster on the back of the door that I had just closed. On the poster were directions in five languages and a diagram sparing no detail-all showing how a woman might accurately urinate into a cup like the one I was holding.

It is hard to describe the effect of these things, except to say that they weren't energizing. I put my cup on the shelf. Thinking fast, I sat on the toilet lid, bowed my head, took a few deep breaths, and instructed myself to relax. This was no big deal. Certainly nothing new. Just wait for the mood, take care of business, then walk proudly through the door. Moving manfully ahead, I got up and took off my coat and sweater. From the cup, I pulled out the packet along with a brief set of instructions. The packet-which was called a "collection pouch"-unrolled in my hand. It was made of clear plastic, heavier than cellophane, lighter than Tupperware, with sharp, singed seams along either side. It was U-shaped, the size of a thumbless mitten, and along with it, "to prevent slippage," came a red rubber band a half-inch thick, the diameter of a nickel, and of no great elasticity. About this time, I heard a knock on the door, and I managed to call, "Just a minute!" Desperately I tried to focus my mind on snowy limbs and sporting nymphs, but all I could imagine were those women lining up, waiting outside. I stared at the cup, the pouch, and the red rubber band. It was then that my vagus nerve kicked in. All the way down to my loins.

Instantly my shirt was drenched, my legs were cold. In the mirror, my face blanched, white as the walls, which seemed to be shuddering toward me. Everything shrank, yes, everything. Nothing could blossom here. I bolted past the poster, through the door, and out into the waiting room, scattering some women in line. I was staggering now, but I still had a purpose: to get to the receptionist, to give her back my cup. Somehow it was in my hand again, yet with nothing of substance inside. In its emptiness it seemed terribly heavy, and seemed to be pulling me down . . .

I have a better understanding now of what the Apocrypha means when it says that Esther "collapsed upon the head" of the maid who accompanied her. It is a difficult feat, but it can be done. I am here to bear witness. As I groped toward the receptionist's window, cup in outstretched hand, I collapsed upon the head of a seated woman from Reston, Virginia, who was awaiting the results of a pregnancy test. As she told me later, quite generously, "It was only a glancing blow." She was more or less able to shrug me off her wool suit as I slithered to the floor.

I was awakened by a pain behind my eyes and a faraway yipping whimper, like the sound our dog makes during nightmares. But the sound was my own voice. And now there were other voices, gentle voices: "Take it easy. Breathe deeply. Would you like some water? Some juice?"

Across my forehead lay something cool: a damp cloth. Shoes, slacks, and hems of skirts wavered into focus. Many women were kneeling around me, an unusual thing in my life. I blinked. At last, Nausicaa's nymphs! Soon I felt a soft hand behind my neck, and I was slowly sitting up. Now a cup appeared before me. This one, however, was brimming with orange juice and crushed ice, and was held by a hand I recognized, that of the receptionist. She was kneeling with her face close to mine, head cocked, dreadlocks hanging, and looking into my eyes with tender concern, as if I had made some noble sacrifice on her behalf.

"You'll be all right," she said. "This will help." I took the cup, said thanks, and drank it down. Later, when I was sitting up in a chair and most of the others had dispersed, she said to me in a low voice, "Do it at home. Whenever you want. Then bring it here as fast as you can. Just keep it warm."

Now I know I'm not exactly Odysseus, or the sort who might have saved the Jews, but I did arise from that faint, went home, and the next day returned in triumph to the receptionist's window with the required specimen in a Ziploc bag that I had cleverly kept warm in my armpit. Moreover, my wife and I would soon conceive our first daughter, an event that in turn would lead to more novel swooning episodes. Some months later, the very word episiotomy, just the word, sent me reeling out of a birth class. And then during the birth itself, a cesarean section, I recall moments of swaying wooziness, although-wonder of wonders-I stayed on my feet, propped up no doubt by the flow of adrenaline and the three boxes of raisins that I had wolfed down on my way to the operating room.

I haven't slackened since then. Faithfully, I faint once or twice a year, most reliably during visits to my in-laws in Minnesota. Three New Year's Eves ago, for instance, I executed a full George H. W. Bush shortly after the cheese fondue. The following year, wasting no time, I keeled over on the plane heading west. At the gate we were met by my quizzical in-laws and an emergency rescue squad.

If I wanted to, I could probably be "cured" of fainting. Beta-blocker drugs might do it. A pacemaker might do it. Most highly recommended is something called "desensitization therapy" or "exposure therapy," depending upon your specialist. The idea is bravely to "face down your fear"-or whatever stimulus triggers all those awkward, humiliating, and inconvenient sprawlings upon the floor. As they like to say in the therapy literature, now there's "hope for the faint of heart!"

Here's how it works. Say the sight or thought of blood and gore makes you squeamish. Well, there's a program for you. After you've figured out how you'll pay for this, you lie on the couch in your therapist's office with your feet elevated (so it's hard to faint). Then the therapist plays a color videotape of abdominal exploratory surgery. For now, you just lie with your eyes closed and listen. There's the soft sssssst of the scalpel drawn upon flesh; the click of clamps, retractors, forceps; the swiney snuffle of suction. It isn't pleasant, but you can handle it. So at your next session, your therapist plays the tape again, while you blink cautiously. There's a glimpse of bloodied, marbled muscle, and what Richard Selzer calls the "gleaming and membranous" organs-salmon, yellow, maroon. Now this is getting a little more difficult, so you watch it over and over and over, each time opening your eyes just a little longer, until many sessions and dollars later, you can watch the whole thing, see the rubber-gloved hand weaving among the slick, sausagey intestines, squeezing, hefting, probing. Next you watch it while seated in a semi-upright position, then upright, and then-bravo!-standing. I assume you could move on to other videotapes-open-heart surgeries, frontal lobotomies-and having faced your fear through all these, you might eventually stroll through slaughterhouses or corpse-littered battlefields without batting an eye.

Of course I'm all for "curing" those for whom fainting could be mortally dangerous-sailors, roofers, and tightrope walkers come immediately to mind. But I think I'll stick with my affliction, thank you. All this exposure is not for me. I'd rather not be desensitized.

I guess in this life you eventually have to claim something as yours, some activity that expresses your innermost being, something at which you truly excel. This choice used to be a spiritual matter, involving some attentive listening for your "calling," a sort of simultaneous message from your heart and from the big man upstairs. My phone doesn't often ring with such messages, but I think I'm hearing one now. Fainting is probably what I do best. It is my talent, my essence, my contribution to the world. Perhaps more than any other identity, a fainter is who I am. And perhaps, if you believe the statistics, it is who a lot of us are.

Could it be that fainting is one of those things that proves we are human? Could it reflect some measure of empathy, that quality that at least to some degree distinguishes us from, say, hamsters? Could it be that fainting comes less from a particular weakness than from some hardwired knowledge that we all are weak, terribly pervious, our bodies like rafts on Poseidon's sea, vessels of twine and kindling?

Syncope comes from the Greek word for "pause." In the midst of some situation that keenly reminds us of our vulnerability, we fainters pause. We don't run away, at least not very far; nor do we charge the barricades. We simply stop and, often after some theatrical staggering, go down in a heap. It is not a reasoned act, but it is reasonable: a "cooling-off period," as mediators call it, after tensions have risen to a boil. We take a break. We check out. We trust the ministrations of time.

"Even the youths shall faint," says the Book of Isaiah, ". . . and the young men shall utterly fall." But like those who "wait upon the Lord," we fainters pause, our world and lives renewed. Then we "mount up with wings as eagles."

William Loizeaux teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. He is the author of Anna: A Daughter's Life and The Shooting of Rabbit Wells.