It was early Sunday morning. Very early–around 3:20 a.m. Tragedy would soon strike as a man armed with an AR-15 approached a busy Waffle House restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, and opened fire. He killed four people.
He could have killed many more.
That is, if it wasn’t for James Shaw Jr.
Shaw and his friend, Brennan McMurry, were looking for a bite to eat after a night out. They ended up at Waffle House, completely unaware of how their lives were about to change forever.
The New York Timesdescribes the scene:
Bullets shattered the restaurant’s windows. A man collapsed onto the floor. Servers ran. A young man whom Mr. Shaw had seen minutes earlier, silhouetted in a pickup truck, was gripping an AR-15 rifle. He was squeezing the trigger, and squeezing it again as he moved toward the building.
Then the firing paused. Mr. Shaw could see the man reloading his weapon just after entering the restaurant.
He sensed a moment when he could fight back.
“I acted in a blink of a second,” Shaw told the Times. “When he reloaded his clip, that felt like 30 minutes. I looked at him, and he wasn’t looking at me. He just had the barrel down. It was like, ‘Do it now. Go now.’ I just took off.”
Shaw says when the shooting started, he dived towards the bathroom. After seeing the gunman pause and point the barrel of his rifle down to the ground, he then rushed the man, hitting him with the door. Shaw then grabbed the barrel of the gun (which resulted in second-degree burns to his hand, since the barrel was still hot). After an intense scuffle, Shaw managed to gain control of the rifle, which he then threw over a countertop.
“I think anybody could’ve did what I did if they’re just pushed in that kind of cage, and you have to either react or you’re going to, you know, fold,” Shaw went on to say. “I was completely doing it just to save myself. Now, me doing that, I did save other people. But I don’t want people to think that I was the Terminator or Superman or anybody like that. It was just, I figured if I was going to die, he was going to have to work for it.”
“I’m not a hero. I’m just a regular person,” Shaw said afterward.
As I’ve watched numerous interviews with Shaw in the aftermath of that traumatic experience, I am impressed at his ability to remain humble, downplay his actions, and deflect attention away from himself.
What I see is a remarkable example of real-world emotional intelligence.
What’s EQ got to do with it?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify emotions (in both yourself and others), to recognize the powerful effects of those emotions, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior. It begins with understanding how emotions work, but it goes much further. Specifically, how do you put that knowledge into practice?
Or, put more simply, how do you make emotions work for you, instead of against you?
Like many others, I’ve been fascinated by Shaw’s ability to react in those pivotal, life-altering seconds that fateful morning in Waffle House.
Basically, Shaw had three options: He could fight for his life, try to flee, or simply freeze. And although he believes anyone would have made the same decision as he did, that’s not entirely true. Many would be–and have been–paralyzed by fear in similar circumstances.
A reporter asked Shaw about this in an interview, and his answer gives us an inside look into his thought process.
Reporter: “So many people would have hid in the bathroom and would have not come out until this was over. What made you go after him?”
Shaw: “That mindset is kind of like ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ to me, because there was a concrete wall there. In the bathroom, it’s only one way in and one way out. And I was like, he’s going to have to work for this kill–for me, personally. So, I just got a head full of steam, and I ran through the door. And it worked out like I wanted it to.”
Reporter: “Were you scared?”
Shaw: “Yes! [Laughing.] Yes.”
The key here is that Shaw found a way to think through the situation. Instead of allowing his fear to paralyze him, he used it as a catalyst to move him to action.
In EQ terms, this is what we call self-management, the ability to manage emotions in a way that allows you to accomplish a task, reach a goal, or provide a benefit.
Since emotions involve your natural, instinctive feelings and are influenced by your unique brain chemistry, you can’t always control how you feel. But you can control the way you act (or refrain from acting) upon those feelings. Practicing self-control can help you react in a productive way, especially in an emotionally charged situation.
Shaw’s ability to effectively manage his emotions is one reason he’s here to tell us the story. And we can only guess how many lives he saved in the process.
Shaw continued to demonstrate emotional intelligence in various ways in the minutes, hours, and days that followed. He encouraged others not to stare at the bodies of the victims, warning that doing so would haunt them. He started a GoFundMe page to help the families of the victims from the shooting. (As of time of writing, the page has raised more than $75,000–far surpassing the initial goal of $15,000.)
And Shaw continues to deflect any praise thrown his way–from hospital workers, police, the CEO of Waffle House, Nashville’s mayor…and from those would-be victims and their families.
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised.
After all, that’s what true heroes do.
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A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.