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Deep Survival

Air Date: Week of

It takes more than the latest equipment and the highest training to make it through a dangerous situation. According to author Laurence Gonzales, an open mind and a positive attitude will help you out of the stickiest jams. Host Steve Curwood talks with Gonzales about his book “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why.”


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

In the face of life threatening dangers, what factors determine who will survive? Hikers and trekkers sometimes pride themselves in preparing for an ordeal of survival, like breaking a leg high on a remote mountain. But preparation tells only part of the story, according to author Laurence Gonzales.

Deep Surival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (Photo: Philip and Karen Smith/Getty Images)

Like an ecosystem, he says, there’s a whole matrix of mind, body and spirit that combines to bring people out of situations where they are up against the odds. Laurence Gonzales’s book is called “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” and he joins me now from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Hello, Laurence. Welcome to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Now, Laurence, when most people hear the word “survival” they automatically think of facing an extreme life and death circumstance, such as a plane crash or being stranded in the wilderness. But your book really expands this definition. Tell me, what do you mean by the term “survival?”

GONZALES: Well it’s interesting, because it’s evolved as I’ve written the book, even. I talk a lot in the book about cases where people get into extreme circumstances. One guy breaks his leg at 19,000 feet on a Peruvian mountain and has to spend six days crawling off, for example. And that’s kind of a classic survival experience. Another guy drifts for 76 days in a raft on the Atlantic.

But as I’ve gone along I’ve realized that much of what I talk about as survival is about enduring with grace the challenges that life brings us all the time. One of our growing readerships, for example, is among women who have had breast cancer who read this book and see themselves in it. And they realize that the wilderness is a metaphor, and that the survival journey these people go through is the same whether you’re going through a divorce or through an illness or a crisis in business, or any of these other challenges that we all find in our lives.

CURWOOD: I want you to tell me one of the survival stories that impressed me a lot in your book, and that’s of a 17-year-old girl who was in a plane crash in Latin America. And she among, what, a dozen people was the only one to survive. Could you tell us her story and why you think she was a survivor?

GONZALES: Yeah. She was in a plane with her mother. She was wearing her Confirmation dress and high heels, if I remember correctly. The plane broke up over the jungle in Peru, I think it was, and people fell out of the plane. She fell out still strapped into her seat. And they fell into the jungle and I’m speculating that the reason they survived was because the trees broke their falls. In any event, she found herself on the ground alone and pretty much unhurt in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. And the adults who fell out decided to stay and await rescue.

This girl looked up and saw that, you know, nobody’s going to see you down here under those heavy canopies of leaves, and she decided to walk out. And she had heard somewhere that if you walk down a streambed it will lead you to civilization. So she used that as her strategy – it’s not necessarily true, but – and she walked for 11 days. She had no equipment, no training, nothing to set her apart except her attitude. And this was a story that was especially important to me because you have to start asking yourself well, what does determine survival? If it’s not equipment and training, you know, why would this 17-year-old make it?

And it is a matter of, ultimately, attitude. People who sit and wait for rescue have an attitude that someone else is responsible for them, that somebody else is going to take care of them. The survivors in every case that I’ve seen are people who tend to first and foremost take responsibility for themselves in their daily lives. This isn’t something they invent on the spur of the moment. There’s a type of person I refer to as a whiner. And we have all met this type of person, who is always complaining and blaming others for what happens and expecting someone to rescue them when things go wrong. And these type of people do not tend to do well in survival situations.

CURWOOD: You also say that to survive one needs to surrender. Can you explain this?

GONZALES: There comes a point when they, in effect, let go of their fear of death, to put it one way. They give up, in a sense, they say, well I know that I’m going to die. In fact, Lance Armstrong, who most people will know won the Tour de France after surviving what should have been a fatal cancer – they talk about, well, I know I’m going to die; I’m probably going to die. The chances are really good that I’m going to die. And in Lance Armstrong’s case he said, you know, I kind of like fighting against the odds stacked against me, so I’m going to fight another day. There is this moment at which they let go of the outcome and they surrender to the circumstance and just say: My job isn’t to decide whether I’m going to live or die; my job is to do the best job of living I can do right now. And that means, you know, taking this next step that is in front of me.

CURWOOD: Now throughout your book you make several references to both Zen and Taoist philosophy. What do those perspectives, what do those philosophies have to do with survival?

GONZALES: Well, in going through the patterns that people used to survive – and I’m talking about everyone from a modern mountain climber to a prisoner at Auschwicz -- reporting sort of the spiritual journey that they go through in the course of their survival and suffering. I went back to some of these ancient texts, which I had always liked to read anyway, and began just to find these wonderful similarities of thought in them. And realized that, you know, what we’re dealing with here when we’re looking at how people make it through these survival journeys, is kind of an ancient and very basic pattern of human behavior and emotion.

CURWOOD: Now, on this business of Zen and the Tao, you discuss the importance of maintaining, and I quote you here, “a Zen mind, beginner’s mind” in a survival situation. Explain for those of us listening what is a Zen mind? And why is it important to survival?

GONZALES: This is related to the beginner’s mind that they talk about in Zen literature, which means you do not assume you know. If you were an expert and assume you know what you’re doing, you’re heading for trouble because there’s definitely something out there you don’t know and you won’t have room to take it in. The beginner’s mind is open and behaves as if it’s empty, so that new information comes in and informs you. A big part of the process of staying out of trouble or getting out of trouble is the process of constantly adapting to your changing environment.

So if you think you know everything, you don’t pick up those changes in your environment. And the environment includes you, so you might not notice that you’re becoming hypothermic, or you might not admit to yourself that you and your wife are having a fight every day and you’re heading for divorce. Or you might ignore a symptom that you’re experiencing that could signal an illness that needs treating. So, we try to talk about keeping an open mind all the time to what’s going on around us and within us, and that, I believe, is what we’re talking about here.

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example or two of how too much training or experience actually becomes a liability in a survival situation?

GONZALES: Getting away with something, getting away with doing something wrong, can train you that it’s okay. In one case that I examine in the book there were a group of climbers on Mt. Hood who climbed roped together, roped to each other. But the rope wasn’t tied to anything on the mountain –


GONZALES: And now, this is a very common technique for climbers to use, so there’s a lot of controversy about whether you should or should not do this. But the search and rescue people I talked to refer to a rope as a suicide pact unless it’s tied to the mountain. In any event, the top guy fell, dragged all the others off the mountain. They picked up another team along the way down, and they picked up a third team along the way down – nine people went into a crevice and three of them died, three were critically injured.

So these people were experienced climbers, quote-unquote “experienced.” They had climbed many mountains this way, roped together with no fixed protection, as they call it, nothing stuck into the mountain to hold that rope. And they had done it over and over again and gotten away with it. They’d even taken little falls and stopped them. So they had been trained to think that this was a safe technique.

Well, you know, we get trained in all kinds of things every day. You know, if you smoke a cigarette and it doesn’t kill you, why, you know, it must be safe, right? So you smoke another one. You just have to be careful about what experience you have had, and what’s it training you to do? What is it training you for?

CURWOOD: What drives us to put ourselves in potentially life-threatening situations in the first place?

GONZALES: The emotional system that we’re equipped with is designed to keep us alive. Since we don’t have to keep ourselves alive any more in our modern society with these, you know, fight and flight type of responses, that system just sits there begging to be used. And a lot of people find that the only way to get it really excited is to go climb Mt. Everest. Everybody has a different level of risk they seek, but everyone seeks to excite that system because it is the system that keeps us alive, and when we use it, we feel more alive.

CURWOOD: What’s the worst thing you can do in a survival situation?

GONZALES: Panic. I mean, panic is really, really incapacitating, and anyone who’s experienced it knows. (LAUGHS) I mean, you can’t remember the simplest thing, and you’re apt to really hurt yourself. So that’s one of the reasons I keep that high up on the list of learning to stay calm. People can learn this stuff. It takes a long time to make new connections in the emotional systems, but it can be done.

CURWOOD: So, there are a lot of things in your book, Laurence, but what’s the most important thing that people should take away from what you’ve written here?

GONZALES: I was reading the other day about the four-minute mile. You know, for decades no one thought it was possible to run a four-minute mile. And people tried and tried and tried, and there were doctors who just said, you know, it’s impossible, humanly impossible. And in 1954 a British guy ran a 3:59.4, I think it was, minute mile, so he beat it by roughly half a second.

CURWOOD: This is Roger Bannister

GONZALES: Bannister, thank you. Within 46 days another guy had beat that record. So for all these decades no one could do it. Well, between then and 1999 they knocked 14 seconds off that record, people just kept beating it and beating it and beating it. Now, why is it that nobody could beat it before? You know, human evolution didn’t change during that period of time. The reason is because they learned that it was possible. And one of the greatest things about these survival stories is that they give you a sense of what’s possible. In fact the last line of the last chapter before the appendix in my book is, “anything is possible.”

CURWOOD: Laurence Gonzales’s book is called “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why.” Thanks for taking this time with me today.

GONZALES: Oh, it’s been my pleasure. Thanks very much.

[MUSIC: Kathryn Tickell “Raincheck” THE GATHERING (Park – 1997)]



"Deep Survival"

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