I’ll never forget reading five years ago about Aaron Ralston, the climber who amputated his own right hand in order to free himself from the boulder that had pinned him to the side of a canyon wall in Southern Utah.
Ralston was stuck there for six days before he got out his multitool and started methodically hacking through the muscle, nerves, and bone of his wrist. For six days he’d fought off dehydration, hypothermia, and, I would imagine, one or more forms of insanity. But in the end he did what he had to do to save himself.
If I were Aaron Ralston’s mom I would have been thinking, after he was safely back home recuperating, that I must’ve done something really right. That I’d done a mother’s (no matter what her species) Number One Job: I’d raised a survivor. Someone who, rather than collapsing under the weight of extreme physical and mental agony, rather than being immobilized by self-pity and victimhood, took control of their situation, made a decision, and executed a painfully difficult plan.
A year after he walked out of that canyon under his own power, in an interview with National Geographic, Ralston was asked what it was that made him start cutting.
“I realized that [my situation] was the result of decisions that I had made,” he said. “I chose to go out there by myself. I chose to not tell anyone where I was going. I chose not to go with [two climbers] I had met in the canyon. But I also realized that I had made all of the choices up to that point that had helped me survive. I took responsibility for all of my decisions, which helped me take on the responsibility of getting myself out.”
God forbid my children will ever find themselves in a situation like Ralston’s; that they’ll ever be stranded at sea on a life raft, lost without food in the wilderness, or stuck with an injury in the middle of nowhere. But if they are, I hope they’ll have the resolve of Aaron Ralston. That they’ll face whatever the situation is squarely, take control of it, and do whatever is possible to save themselves.
What kind of person can do that? One book attempts to answer that question. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, And Why, by Laurence Gonzales, tells the stories of people who’ve survived disastrous situations, even when those around them perished. Gonzales says that at least 75 percent of people caught in a catastrophe either freeze or simply wander in a daze. But some are able to react positively and change their situation. And most of those survivors, he says, have similar traits.
“These are people who tend to have a view of the world that does not paint them as a victim,” he says. “They’re not whiners who are always complaining about the bad things that are happening to them and expecting to get rescued.” According to Gonzales, many of the disaster survivors he studied weren’t the most skilled, the strongest, or the most experienced in the group. Rather, they were those who accepted the reality of their situation, stayed calm, and strategized a way out of it.
Survivors also tend to be independent thinkers. On September 11, 2001, during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, security personnel told people to stay put and wait for rescue, but most of those who followed that instruction were killed, while the survivors made up their own minds and headed down the stairs. “They were not rule followers,” Gonzales says, “they thought for themselves and had an independent frame of mind.”
And as Gonzales points out on his website and in his lecture series, the principles in Deep Survival aren’t limited to catastrophes. They can be applied to “survive” many of the trials and tribulations of the average life.
I’m not sure if I’d have the guts to cut off my hand, even if it meant saving my own life. But I hope I would. And as a mother, I hope my children would. And even if they never find themselves in a life-or-death disaster, I hope they’ll take a page from Aaron Ralston’s life and Laurence Gonzales’s book. That they’ll take responsibility for their own lives, and that they’ll plan, whatever the situation is, on rescuing themselves.