Over the past months of economic and publishing crises I’ve reflected on a book I read last year, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. It’s far from great literature, and to my taste does way too much wandering around in the mysteries of brain chemistry. (I am pretty sure nobody really understands this stuff, though journalists and pop psychologists regularly pick through the journals, find a few intriguing results, and make it sound as though the brain is about as complicated as a toaster oven.)
That said, Gonzales is very interesting in describing myriad crises (people who survived plane crashes and found themselves lost in wilderness, people whose boat sank on the open ocean, people who got lost in the mountains, etc.) and trying to sort out why some live and some die.
A lot of it comes to handling your emotions. It’s natural to panic, and panicky people often freeze up and don’t do anything, or else run off making bad decisions. For example, people lost in the mountains often just keep going, thinking that their destination lies just ahead, instead of retracing their steps. Panicky people often know better than what their response suggests. If they could stop and think clearly, they would do better. The problem is that it’s very hard to think clearly in a crisis. You get your adrenaline running (this is where brain chemistry comes in) and your thought processes don’t work very well.
Of course, in a real crisis you may do everything you should and still die. But people who have made it through terrible calamities share certain approaches. I’ve found some of these relevant to my life.
One common response is prayer. Even people who don’t believe in God find themselves wanting to pray. Referring problems to a wise, all-knowing and objective Person out there seems to help them calm down and take courage. It makes sense. When you pray you are remembering a bigger context. Even if you aren’t able to see your situation objectively, you are recalling someone who does see it objectively. That can help you to step out of your situation far enough to detach yourself from its terror. Gonzales isn’t religious, as far as I can tell, but he does respect the helpfulness of religion in a crisis situation.
Humor also helps—often gallows humor. It can help you calm down, detach yourself from the immediate threats, and see the situation from a different angle. If you can look at something with enough irony to laugh at it, you are no longer in the immediate grip of panic.
Interestingly, people who survive are often those who come to the point of accepting that they are likely to die. Somehow this helps. Some decided that if they were going to die, they wanted to do it with dignity, having done everything they could possibly do for survival. Some thought of the stories that would be told of them when their bodies were discovered. Others crystallized a new determination to survive based on a desire to live for someone else—a family member, often enough—or for an unfinished project. The knowledge that they were likely to die both calmed them and steeled them for the effort to keep on trying.
I’ve thought of this particularly as I approach my sixties. In a mid-life crisis some people panic (get divorced, buy a sports car, go to Costa Rica) and others despair and give up (watch TV, stop working out, quit trying at work). But the realization that we are going to die, that our lives (as well as our working lives) have a limit, may help us to focus on ending well. I think that’s why medieval philosophers were often portrayed contemplating a skull.
The most important point I got from Gonzales’ book was that survivors make a plan. They take action, but they don’t rush into action—they calm themselves and figure out what’s best to do, even though there are many unknowns. They don’t let the unknowns of their situation paralyze them. They carefully reflect on what they know and don’t know, they think through what can be done to maximize their chances of escape, and then they act on that plan carefully and systematically. Knowing the plan is imperfect, since perfect plans depend on complete knowledge, they still follow through, developing a regular routine to help them keep to the plan.
Crises are rare. We are never adequately prepared for them, and what to do in response to them is never obvious. That’s true whether we find ourselves floating in the ocean without a life raft, watching our lifelong savings disappear, losing our job, or finding ourselves in a family crisis. If these situations were easily figured out, they wouldn’t be real crises. Prayer, humor, life perspective, and a plan of action—these don’t necessarily solve anything, but they help us do the best we can.