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Deep Survival

Laurence Gonzales (2004)


In a true survival situation, you are by definition looking death in the face, and if you can't find something droll and even something wondrous and inspiring in it, you are already in a world of hurt. Al Siebert, a psychologist and author of The Survivor Personality, writes that survivors "laugh at threats . . . playing and laughing go together. Playing keeps the person in contact with what is happening around [him]." To deal with reality you must first recognize it as such. (27-8)

Some high-angle rescue workers call body bags "long-term bivvy sacks." It sounds cruel, but survivors laugh and play, and even in the most horrible situations—perhaps especially in those situations—they continue to laugh and play. To deal with reality you must first recognize it as such, and as Siebert and others have pointed out, play puts a person in touch with his environment, while laughter makes the feeling of being threatened manageable. (41)

There was another more fundamental difficulty that the snowmobilers faced. Our sense of a mountain, the earth, is a sense of something solid, and our experience confirms that. Nothing in our learning tells us that a mountain is going to come apart before our eyes. It makes no sense. It hasn't happened, therefore it cannot happen. The mountain certainly didn't look fragile. The snowmobilers literally couldn't believe it. We think we believe what we know, but we only truly believe what we feel. (64)

My father used to perform a card trick for me and my brothers. Anyone can do it. He'd shuffle a deck and ask us to pick a card, not show it to him, and replace it anywhere in the deck. Then he'd let us shuffle the deck so that it would seem impossible for him to find the card. But when he'd show us the cards, one by one, he'd watch our eyes. When we saw the card that we'd picked, our pupils would dilate, and he'd know which card we'd picked. The involuntary physical response is proof that there is an emotional component to the process of matching the model with the world. (72)

Perceptions do not incorporate the world in a literal way. If you try to imagine the face of your mother, there is no photograph of your mother waiting in your brain. Rather, fragments of the image, in cluding its emotional content, are stored in a dormant form scattered across numerous neural networks. When you call forth your mother's face, they all light up simultaneously in what Antonio Domasio calls a trick of timing to create an illusion that you're seeing your mother's face, or something like it. The way we store what we know about the world is much the same. Mental models are distributed across the brain. (76)

Recent research demonstrates that talking on a cell phone while driving, whether hands-free or not, causes inattentional blindness, the psychological equivalent of [this]. (81)

Psychologists who study survival say that people who are rule followers don't do as well as those who are of independent mind and spirit. When a patient is told that he has six months to live, he has two choices: to accept the news and die, or to rebel and live. People who survive cancer in the face of such a diagnosis are notorious. The medical staff observes that they are "bad patients," unruly, troublesome. They don't follow directions. They question everything. They're annoying. They're survivors. (85)

In the World Trade Center disaster, many people who were used to following the rules died because they did what they were told by authority figures. An employee of the Aon Insurance Company on the ninety-third floor of the south tower had begun his escape but returned to his office after the security guards made a general announcement that the building was safe and that people should stay inside until they were told to leave. Before he died, he spoke to his father on the phone: "Why did I listen to them—I shouldn't have." Another man, an employee of Fuji Bank, actually reached the ground-floor lobby, only to be sent back in by a security guard. A third worker called a family member and recorded a final message on the answering machine: "I can't go anywhere because they told us not to move. I have to wait for the firefighters." (174)

When [Morey] told us we could navigate without compass or map, Jonas and I both were pretty skeptical. We'd just come from an Air Force-style survival school where a knowledge of map and compass was paramount. But the lesson was not about finding our way in the woods; it was about navigating the human brain.
As we hiked through the trailless forest, Morey stopped every 20 or 30 yards to point out something, and we'd examine and discuss what we found. After we'd followed him deep into the woods, he asked us to close our eyes and point the way home. It is a humbling experience to find that you can't. I'd been following him, which is never a good idea. I had not walked my own walk, and as a result, I was lost.
Morey directed our attention to the last place we'd stopped to talk. We could still see it from where we stood. "Remember, we talked about the bittersweet vine there?" We'd taken a sample from a vine that's good for making cordage. So we hiked back to that spot. Then he pointed to another spot, where he'd shown me ways of seeing and walking that were used by Native American trackers and other Aboriginal peoples. He called it "Owl Eyes and the Fox Walk," that full-body alertness I'd seen when he listened to the birds. It can put you in an altered state of perception, he said. We returned to that spot. From there, we could see the place where we thought we'd found the hoof print of a deer, but it turned out to be the entrance to a vole tunnel. We had squatted there to discuss the difference between voles, moles, and mice.
Thus, hopping from one conversation to the next, we were able to retrace our steps exactly and to remember in great detail not only where we'd been but what we'd said and done at each spot. In what seemed to be a featureless and homogenous forest, Morey had given us tangible cues, like road signs, which we could easily follow home. He had discovered an effortless way to embed a reliable mental map in our brains.
"It's called song lines," he said. "And it's an ancient navigational technique used by Australian Aboriginals."
In Australia the Aborigines have a "labyrinth of invisible pathways," as Bruce Chatwin wrote in The Songlines, "which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as `Dreaming-tracks,' or `Songlines'; to the Aboriginals as the `Footprints of the Ancestors' or the `Way of the Law.' Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes—and so singing the world into existence. . . . A song . . . was both a map and a direction-finder. Provided you knew the song, you could always find your way across country."
"If you do that when you go into the woods," Morey told us, "you'll never be lost."
I was cynical at first about pretending to be a deer or an owl or a fox. But when I phoned him weeks later, Morey was able to recite in detail the steps in our journey. He remembered specific fallen trees, a patch of Japanese knotweed, and the way the wind was moving the leaves on a stand of maples. "It's not like I tried to remember that," he said. "It's an ancient instinct. And it's still alive." It was the first time I'd heard a strategy for making the mental map match the world. Map and compass are artificial methods for doing that, and they work well. But this was . . . deep. It was aboriginal neuroscience, using implicit, not explicit, memory circuits to embed the map in the unconscious mind. (189-91)
[A great book about this practice in Apache culture is Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits In Places—DoC]

Survival is nothing more than an ordinary life well lived in extreme circumstances. He embraced the world, and the world embraced him. He was not lost, so all was not lost. . . . Not being lost is not a matter of getting back to where you started from; it is a decision not to be lost wherever you happen to find yourself. It's simply saying, "I'm not lost, I'm right here." Which is, significantly, what a child would say. Zen mind. Beginner's mind. (240)

He awoke in the morning quoting Shakespeare to himself, shouting at the roof of his snow cave. "I felt delighted . . . bellowing the words in my best Laurence Olivier voice. . . ." When the brain is allowed to relax its grip on the survival struggle for a moment, as we've seen, it eagerly gets to work. And where there is no new input to process, to map or memorize, it jumps up and gives you a core dump. That's when you'd better hope you've spent your life building a core. (244)

Be humble. A Navy Seal commander told Al Siebert, the psychologist who studies survival, that "the Rambo types are the first to go." Don't think that just because you're good at one thing, it makes you good at other things. (283)

The perfect adventure shouldn't be that much more hazardous in a real sense than ordinary life, for that invisible rope that holds us here can always break. We can live a life of bored caution and die of cancer. Better to take the adventure, minimize the risks, get the information, and then go forward in the knowledge that we've done everything we can.
No, some people would rather not see it, but the bull is there for all of us. Some of us choose to pass the cape in front of its horns. To live life is to risk it. And when you feel the rush of air and catch the stink of hot breath in your face, you enter the secret order of those who have seen their own death close up. It makes us live that much more intensely. So intense is it for some that it seals their fate; once they've tasted it, they just can't stop. And in their cases, perhaps we have to accept that the light that burns brightest burns half as long.
But I believe that if you do it right, you can have it all. I adhere to what my daughter Amelia calls the Gutter Theory of Life. It goes like this: You don't want to be lying in the gutter, having been run down by a bus, the last bit of your life ebbing away, and be thinking, "I should have taken that rafting trip . . . " or, "I should have learned to surf . . . " of "I should have flown upside down—with smoke!"
Pete Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon. He died in a motorcycle accident on an ordinary day. It took him a while to die as he went to the hospital. I wonder what he was thinking. I hope it was: I did it all. (295)

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