Having been so impressed with the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales I felt a need to share an excerpt verbatim from the Appendix. I shared a few personal thoughts and reviews on this book a while back and recommend that you read it. I have never read a finer book on the psychology of survival. Some of the references below are to chapters in the book, and you’ll just have to read it to learn more.
I’VE BEEN reading accident reports of various kinds for thirty or more years. Call me callous, but to me they’re like silent comedy movies. People do the strangest things and get themselves into the most amazing predicaments. You want to go wake up Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and say: Hey, you think your characters are crazy….
In reading about cases in which people survive seemingly impossible circumstances, however, I found an eerie uniformity. Decades and sometimes even centuries apart, separated by culture, geography, race, language, and tradition, they all went through the same patterns of thought and behavior. I eventually distilled those observations down to twelve points that seemed to stand out concerning how survivors think and behave in the clutch of mortal danger. Some are the same as the steps for staying out of trouble. Here’s what survivors do:
- Perceive, believe (look, see, believe). Even in the initial crisis, survivors’ perceptions and cognitive functions keep working. They notice the details and may even find some humorous or beautiful. If there is any denial, it is counterbalanced by a solid belief in the clear evidence of their senses. They immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation. “I’ve broken my leg, that’s it. I’m dead,” as Joe Simpson (chapter 13) put it. They may initially blame forces outside themselves, too; but very quickly they dismiss that tactic and recognize that everything, good and bad, emanates from within. They see opportunity, even good, in their situation. They move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance very rapidly. They “go inside.” Bear in mind, though, that many people, such as Debbie Kiley (chapter 11), may have to struggle for a time before they get there.
- Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus). In their initial crisis, survivors are making use of fear, not being ruled by it. Their fear often feels like and turns into anger, and that motivates them and makes them sharper. They understand at a deep level about being cool and are ever on guard against the mutiny of too much emotion. They keep their sense of humor and therefore keep calm.
- Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks). Survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline. In successful group survival situations, a leader emerges often from the least likely candidate. They push away thoughts that their situation is hopeless. A rational voice emerges and is often actually heard, which takes control of the situation. Survivors perceive that experience as being split into two people and they “obey” the rational one. It begins with the paradox of seeing reality—how hopeless is would seem to an outside observer—but acting with the expectation of success.
- Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out tasks). Survivors are able to transform thought into actions. They are willing to take risks to save themselves and others. They are able to break down very large jobs into small, manageable tasks. They set attainable goals and develop short-term plans to reach them. They are meticulous about doing those tasks well. They deal with what is within their power from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day. They leave the rest behind.
- Celebrate your success (take joy in completing tasks). Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation.
- Count your blessings (be grateful—you’re alive). This is how survivors become rescuers instead of victims. There is always someone else they are helping more than themselves, even if that someone is not present. One survivor I spoke to, Yossi Ghinsberg, who was lost for weeks in the Bolivian jungle, hallucinated about a beautiful companion with whom he slept each night as he traveled. Everything he did, he did for her.
- Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head). Since the brain and its wiring appear to be the determining factor in survival, this is an argument for expanding and refining it. They more you have learned and experienced of art, music, poetry, literature, philosophy, mathematics, and so on, the more resources you will have to fall back on. Just as survivors use patterns and rhythm to move forward in the survival voyage, they use the deeper activities of the intellect to stimulate, calm, and entertain the mind. Counting becomes important, too, and reciting poetry or even a mantra can calm the frantic mind. Movement becomes dance. One survivor who had to walk a long way counted his steps, one hundred at a time, and dedicated each hundred to another person he cared about.
- Stockdale cites “love of poetry” as an important quality for enduring. “You thirst to remember,” he wrote. “The clutter of all the trivia evaporates from you consciousness and with care you can make deep excursions into past recollections….Verses were hoarded and gone over each day…[T]he person who came into this experiment with reams of already memorized poetry was the bearer of great gifts.”
- Survivors often cling to talismans. They search for meaning, and the more you know already, the deeper the meaning. They engage the crisis almost as a game. They discover the flow of the expert performer, in whom emotion and thought balance each other in producing action. “Careful, careful,” they say. But they act joyfully and decisively. Playing also leads to invention, and invention may lead to a new technique, strategy, or a piece of equipment that could save you.
- See the beauty (remember: it’s a vision quest). Survivors are attuned to the wonder of the world. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses. When you see something, your pupils actually dilate. This appreciation not only relieves stress and creates strong motivation, but it allows you to take in new information more effectively.
- Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you’ll live). All of the practices just describe lead to this point: Survivors consolidate their personalities and fix their determination. Survivors admonish themselves to make no more mistakes, to be very careful, and to do their very best. They become convinced that they will prevail if they do those things.
- Surrender (let go of your fear of dying; “put away the pain”). Survivors manage pain well. Lauren Elder (chapter 13), who walked out of the Sierra Nevada after surviving a plane crash, wrote that she “stored away the information: My arm is broken.” That sort of thinking is what John Leach calls “resignation without giving up. It is survival by surrender.” Joe Simpson recognized that he would probably die. But it had ceased to bother him, and so he went ahead and crawled off the mountain anyway.
- Do whatever is necessary (be determined; have the will and the skill). Survivors have meta-knowledge: They know their abilities and do not over- or underestimate them. They believe that anything is possible and act accordingly. Play leads to invention, which leads to trying something that might have seemed impossible. When the plane in which Lauren Elder was flying hit the top of a ridge above 12,000 feet, it would have seemed impossible that she could get off alive. She did it anyway, including having to down-climb vertical rock races with a broken arm. Survivors don’t expect or even hope to be rescued. They are coldly rational about using the world, obtaining what they need, doing what they have to do.
- Never give up (let nothing break your spirit). There is always one more thing that you can do. Survivors are not easily frustrated. They are not discouraged by setbacks. They accept that the environment (or the business climate or their health) is constantly changing. They pick themselves up and start the entire process over again, breaking it down into manageable bits. Survivors always have a clear reason for going on. They keep their spirits up by developing an alternate world made up of rich memories to which they can escape. They mine their memory for whatever will keep them occupied. They come to embrace the world in which they find themselves and see opportunity in adversity. In the aftermath, survivors learn from and are grateful for the experiences they’ve had.