The 12 Rules of Survival has been out of a couple of years now, but it never hurts to reread them. Read the whole book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why if you get an opportunity!
THE 12 RULES OF SURVIVAL
By Laurence Gonzales
As a journalist, I’ve been writing about accidents for more than thirty years. In the last 15 or so years, I’ve concentrated on accidents in outdoor recreation, in an effort to understand who lives, who dies, and why. To my surprise, I found an eerie uniformity in the way people survive seemingly impossible circumstances. Decades and sometimes centuries apart, separated by culture, geography, race, language, and tradition, the most successful survivors – those who practice what I call “deep survival” – go through the same patterns of thought and behavior, the same transformation and spiritual discovery, in the course of keeping themselves alive. Not only that but it doesn’t seem to matter whether they are surviving being lost in the wilderness or battling cancer, whether they’re struggling through divorce or facing a business catastrophe – the strategies remain the same.
Survival should be thought of as a journey, a vision quest of the sort that native Americans have had as a rite of passage for thousands of years. Once you’re past the precipitating event – you’re cast away at sea or told you have cancer – you have been enrolled in one of the oldest schools in history. Here are a few things I’ve learned that can help you pass the final exam.
1. Perceive and Believe
Don’t fall into the deadly trap of denial or of immobilizing fear. Admit it: You’re really in trouble and you’re going to have to get yourself out.
Many people who in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, died simply because they told themselves that everything was going to be all right. Others panicked. Panic doesn’t necessarily mean screaming and running around. Often it means simply doing nothing. Survivors don’t candy-coat the truth, but they also don’t give in to hopelessness in the face of it.
Survivors see opportunity, even good, in their situation, however grim. After the ordeal is over, people may be surprised to hear them say it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Viktor Frankl, who spent three years in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, describes comforting a woman who was dying. She told him, “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.”
The phases of the survival journey roughly parallel the five stages of death once described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book On Death and Dying: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In dire circumstances, a survivor moves through those stages rapidly to acceptance of his situation, then resolves to do something to save himself. Survival depends on telling yourself, “Okay, I’m here. This is really happening. Now I’m going to do the next right thing to get myself out.” Whether you succeed or not ultimately becomes irrelevant. It is in acting well – even suffering well – that you give meaning to whatever life you have to live.
2. Stay Calm – Use Your Anger
In the initial crisis, survivors are not ruled by fear; instead, they make use of it. Their fear often feels like (and turns into) anger, which motivates them and makes them feel sharper. Aron Ralston, the hiker who had to cut off his hand to free himself from a stone that had trapped him in a slot canyon in Utah, initially panicked and began slamming himself over and over against the boulder that had caught his hand. But very quickly, he stopped himself, did some deep breathing, and began thinking about his options. He eventually spent five days progressing through the stages necessary to convince him of what decisive action he had to take to save his own life.
When Lance Armstrong, six-time winner of the Tour de France, awoke from brain surgery for his cancer, he first felt gratitude. “But then I felt a second wave, of anger… I was alive, and I was mad.” When friends asked him how he was doing, he responded, “I’m doing great… I like it like this. I like the odds stacked against me… I don’t know any other way.” That’s survivor thinking.
Survivors also manage pain well. As a bike racer, Armstrong had had long training in enduring pain, even learning to love it. James Stockdale, a fighter pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and spent eight years in the Hanoi Hilton, as his prison camp was known, advised those who would learn to survive: “One should include a course of familiarization with pain. You have to practice hurting. There is no question about it.”
3. Think, Analyze, and Plan
Survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline.
When Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, he organized his fight against it the way he would organize his training for a race. He read everything he could about it, put himself on a training schedule, and put together a team from among friends, family, and doctors to support his efforts. Such conscious, organized effort in the face of grave danger requires a split between reason and emotion in which reason gives direction and emotion provides the power source. Survivors often report experiencing reason as an audible “voice.”
Steve Callahan, a sailor and boat designer, was rammed by a whale and sunk while on a solo voyage in 1982. Adrift in the Atlantic for 76 days in a five-and-a-half-foot raft, he experienced his survival voyage as taking place under the command of a “captain,” who gave him his orders and kept him on his water ration, even as his own mutinous (emotional) spirit complained. His captain routinely lectured “the crew.” Thus under strict control, he was able to push away thoughts that his situation was hopeless and take the necessary first steps of the survival journey: to think clearly, analyze his situation, and formulate a plan.
4. Take Correct, Decisive Action
Survivors are willing to take risks to save themselves and others. But they are simultaneously bold and cautious in what they will do. Lauren Elder was the only survivor of a light plane crash in high sierra. Stranded on a peak above 12,000 feet, one arm broken, she could see the San Joaquin Valley in California below, but a vast wilderness and sheer and icy cliffs separated her from it. Wearing a wrap-around skirt and blouse, with two-inch heeled boots and not even wearing underwear, she crawled “on all fours, doing a kind of sideways spiderwalk,” as she put it later, “balancing myself on the ice crust, punching through it with my hands and feet.”
She had 36 hours of climbing ahead of her – a seemingly impossible task. But Elder allowed herself to think only as far as the next big rock. Survivors break down 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. Elder tested each hold before moving forward and stopped frequently to rest. They make very few mistakes. They handle what is within their power to deal with from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day.
5. Celebrate your success
Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. This helps keep motivation high and prevents a lethal plunge into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable strain of a life-threatening situation. Elder said that once she had completed her descent of the first pitch, she looked up at the impossibly steep slope and thought, “Look what you’ve done…Exhilarated, I gave a whoop that echoed down the silent pass.” Even with a broken arm, joy was Elder’s constant companion. A good survivor always tells herself: count your blessings – you’re alive. Viktor Frankl wrote of how he felt at times in Auschwitz: “How content we were; happy in spite of everything.”