Survival, from Jim Sogi

March 9, 2009 |

 Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales is good re-read in these troubled times. I've reviewed it before, (see past discussion on the site here) but so many big and small are not surviving. Live a river, a good book is never the same when read over. He has some good advice.

There are two aspects to survival: avoiding getting into trouble, and surviving once in deep.

How to avoid getting into trouble.

Tao Te Ching says, The farther ones goes, the less one knows. There are a number of phenomenon at work that put you in deep trouble.

1. When in danger, the IQ goes down and the mind starts shutting out appropriate input, or goes into a stupor. This compounds the danger and leads to death. 75% of people react this way. Perceptions themselves change. Its very dangerous. Training and preparation help avoid shutdown.

2. We make mental models and as a result of confirmation bias, ignore cues that the model is not appropriate. Experts are especially susceptible to this. Models are simplifications, and complex systems can go way out of bounds. Like the current market situation. Then the models are no longer appropriate but we cling to them, putting us in harms way. Models come from past experience, limited experience and may not be appropriate as new situations arise, as they always do. Here is where humility comes in. A Zen saying,"In the beginners mind there are many possibilities: in the expert's mind there are few."

3. Be able to perceive, change plans, adapt, bail out.

How to get out of trouble.

4. The right positive mental attitude can keep one out of trouble, and allow survival when in deep. Some aspects of the right attitude are humility, awareness. Take personal responsibility rather than blaming outside factors. Surprisingly empathy and taking on the role of rescuer, rather than victimhood helps with survival. Death comes when people lie down and give up.

5. An interesting aspect of survival is friction. More effort cannot overcome friction. It only leads to exhaustion. Plans never go right, there are always delays, at the worst possible moment. Its Murphy's law at work. Its the vig. The cure is to conserve energy. Only go at 60%. Keep a reserve. Exhaustion is often the cause of death. When in danger or lost, people panic, and start flailing about, become exhausted, and lay down and die. Rather, be still, rest, observe. Then start to consolidate and make a plan. Get your bearings. Don't hurry. Get back on path.

Epitecus said, "Let silence be the general rule, or let only what is necessary be said, and in few words." The idea is to avoid chattering. Mental balance and focus is critical in survival situations.

"If you get a lucky break really use it. You have to fight like a bastard." Says one survivor. Other use other mantras repeated, to help survival mentality.

Last thing: be cool.

George Parkanyi writes:

In late October 1999 I went into a cold river and pulled someone out who had jumped off a bridge. Luckily her winter clothing had kept her afloat, and as it turns out thankfully the rescue was not all that difficult. . When I saw her shadow floating in the dark under the bridge, I remember thinking she could sink at any time, and for all I knew she was already dead. She'd been in the water at least 5-7 minutes. (I had run from the nearby video store to see what was going on when someone rushed in to call 911.) I quickly threw off my coat, sweater, and shoes so I'd have something dry to come back to, said a split-second prayer, and waded in. Then time slowed down — and I felt more like a detached observer. It was like something or someone else had taken over and was driving, and I was just watching it happen. I don't remember feeling the cold.

When I reached her, surprisingly she was still afloat, face-up and conscious. I was up to my chin in water but didn't have to swim. I introduced myself with "Hi I'm George. I'll be your rescuer for this evening. What's your name?" "Nobody", she murmured — par for the course I suppose as she was trying to kill herself. So I grabbed her coat and literally just towed her in. I heaved her onto shore and threw my coat over her, but about half a minute later the firefighters and paramedics arrived and took over.

Before then, I never knew what I'd do in that situation, or what it would be like. As Jim says, the mind really does go into a totally different state. And I think it starts at the point where you've fully committed yourself. But before I went in I did make some quick calculations; perhaps 30 seconds worth — help would be on its way, I was a strong swimmer, pretty cold water, shoes off, need something dry later, how much time to get there, how much time would she have, how much time would I have. So the rational mind is still key.

The one funny thing about that night was the look the video store clerk's face when I sloshed back into the store all wet and finished renting my video.

Russ Sears writes:

Just today, I was thinking about what makes US strong is that we all face the "prisoners' dilemma" together, but most of the people I know tend to think of it instead as the "rescuers' dilemma".

Best case, small gain, most likely case cold, pain from an ungrateful soul, but the worst case…

Do you risk it?

When the neighbor's barn burns or is hit by a tornado, we all pitch in to help. Because we know it could have been us. She may not have wanted help, but if she was your daughter, you would have been delighted that someone like you was there. People here in fly over country are talking survival of buying guns and heading for the hills of Canada or Alaska, if things get ugly and bad. But it is just talk, always will be, we have a duty.

George Parkanyi replies:

Helping others is critical, because as you point out "There but for the grace of G_d go I." I'm sure everyone has been in a position of vulnerability at some point in their lives when a helping hand made a huge difference. It has for me, many times over, and my regret is that sometimes I forget that. And everyone has also been in the position of being that helping hand. I think on balance people will rise to the occasion and do more good than harm to each other as times get tougher here in the near term.

Marion Dreyfus comments:

It doesn't sound as if anyone made a big fuss about your bravery and cool under the crisis conditions. I will make such a fuss: Since I am fairly terrified of water, having drowned when I was 11 and been brought back to life by a doze-y lifeguard who saw a woman take me to the deep end of the pool when I could not swim, I am impressed at your calculations that did not impede your swift and funny intentions. Did you really say "I'll be your rescuer for the evening"? That is hilarious. Belatedly: You are a hero! You deserve some sort of acknowledgment that those people back then forgot to give you. Bravo!

Victor Niederhoffer adds:

My father did the same thing. But it wasn't so heroic because he was a policeman and had to do it. I have the letter from the woman he saved, and she was very grateful he saved her life as she came back and enjoyed life. I know a few people who tried to kill themselvees and they have had very happy lives afterwards including a frequent contributor to this site, who is one of the happiest guys I've ever met, even though his life style might not appeal to those who dont like 150 degree weather. The video store operator —- to make the story complete: "When I sloshed bak into the store, the clerk looked at me in amazement. He said "my goodness, you're a hero. That will be 2.50 by the way ." I said " 2.50!!!! After all that!" He said, "Oh, right, I forgot to add the VAT. Sorry."


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