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I’m fascinated by Stoic philosophy and “survival mindsets”. I read a lot about how we can tailor our thinking to help us get through both everyday challenges and the most difficult of circumstances, and recently came across Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales.
I enjoyed the author’s application of Stoic philosophy to modern life, alongside the anecdotes he chose (including that of the wonderful Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who spent 4 days stranded in the Sahara desert).
Here are a few lessons from the book to get us started on our survival education.
1. See the beauty
Steven Callahan (born 1952) is an American sailor, author and inventor who is known (amongst other things) for having survived 76 days adrift on the Atlantic Ocean in a liferaft.
As we can see in his autobiographical Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea, he was clearly attuned to the wonder of the world. Upon seeing a rainbow, Callahan wrote that, “I feel as if I am passing down the corridor of a heavenly vault of irreproducible grandeur and color.” And after 53 days at sea, he described how:
I am constantly surrounded by a display of natural wonders… It is beauty surrounded by ugly fear. I write in my log that it is a view of heaven from a seat in hell.
We can also link this to Viktor Frankl’s survival of life in concentration camps, which he describes with so much reference to nature’s beauty in Man’s Search for Meaning. Tolstoy’s Pierre also undergoes a similar experience during his captivity in War and Peace.
2. Be there for others
Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. – Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival
3. Develop a stoic mindset
Read the philosophers, strengthen your mind, be grateful, and understand what’s important to focus your attention on. Change the things you can, accept the things you can’t. It comes in useful.
In summarising Marcus Aurelius’s teachings, Irwin Edman wrote during World War II, in his introduction to the Meditations, that: “Fortitude is necessary, and patience and courtesy and modesty and decorum, and a will, in what may for the moment seem to be the worst of worlds, to do one’s best”.
On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use
4. Know your stuff
If you’re embarking on an adventure into nature, have a deep knowledge of the world you’re entering. As Marcus Aurelius encouraged, “Of each particular thing, ask: ‘What is it in itself, in its own construction?'”
The story of Christopher McCandless, narrated by John Krakauer in Into the Wild, is inspiring in his decision to leave the chaos of modern life for simplicity in nature (having been inspired by Tolstoy). However, I also think it provides a lot of lessons on what not to do.
5. Learn to face reality
The first rule is: Face reality. Good survivors aren’t immune to fear. They know what’s happening, and it does “scare the living shit out of” them. It’s all a question of what you do next.
Whether we are in the wilderness or experiencing the challenges that life throws at us all, I think that Laurence Gonzales has created a good toolkit to get us started.