As I child of the eighties it was a pretty big deal when my dad replaced our book-sized television that had rabbit ears and dials with a big screen T.V. He moved the old one to our cool girl club house, a.k.a. the basement, and needed a dolly to wheel the new one in. Measuring 2 feet deep, it was like a piece of wood-paneled furniture with a 24-inch screen, no rabbit ears and a box clicker with 33 channels. We were a modern family who no longer had to pretend to know what MTV was.
Fast forward some twenty years to my cozy Brooklyn apartment. My media has taken a few big steps back: the VCR is still hooked up, and we need a cable box and rabbit ears to view our 3 channels. None of those channels happen to be Discovery or NatGeo, but that’s okay. I have Laurence Gonzales, the man responsible for every flight I will ever miss.
Surviving Survival is about the aftermath of survival, focusing more on psychological recovery than physical. Gonzales details how the brain maps out memories to prepare us for future crisis, like when you crash a car and for months after potential accidents will play out in your mind at every corner.
In the brain, the cardinal rule is future equals past; what has happened before will happen again.
Each chapter introduces a survivor and the events that changed his or her life. These are people who lived through ship wrecks, shark attacks, concentration camp, war, cancer, loosing a child and abusive husbands. The meat of their stories focuses on what happened after the bandages were removed. Regardless of their unique traumas, they all note feeling as if they no longer belonged to this world.
If you think some of these case studies sound hard to read, remember that someone actually lived through it. Kathy Russell Rich fought bone cancer and responded to a grim prognosis by traveling to India to study Hindi. She refused to think of herself as someone who was dying. Someone who takes on a new language presumes she has a future. Rich wrote about her time in her memoir “Dreaming in Hindi”, a slow, beautiful book about throwing yourself into the unfamiliar. Sadly, Rich passed away this year, but she lived for decades longer than doctors predicted.
Gonzales breaks down what happens in the mind when the body endures the unimaginable. He writes that a new set of memories obscure the old, good ones, which is why a part of the survivor stays where they were trapped – on that raft or in the mouth of a bear. Not every story has a happy ending, but many of these people found a way to stand up again and live a better life.
The “Be here now” mentality is what drove many of them through their dark times. So you wonder why we all don’t put on our “Be here now” caps. But re-conditioning your mentality takes more than might and main. Gonzales picks at the relationship between brain and body, but he’s a writer and there’s not even a word for this relationship. He defines it as:
…the thing that gives rise to motion, thought, consciousness, feeling, and to the self that we perceive as a whole.
While the process varied for each of them, Gonzales isolates a few key similarities. The “survivor voyage” continues in mind and body long after physical wounds heal because psychological wounds cut deeper. Again and again he illustrates the importance of surrendering to the process of survival. Survivors don’t stop fighting. They’re always moving on to the next action.
My favorite parts dig into the mind’s influence on our physical world. For instance, a room looks brighter when you see someone you love because your eyes dilate. Gonzales even explains how knitting and embroidery can be therapeutic. It should come as no surprise that the choices we make have a domino effect, but some of the most obvious givens are easy to forget when you’re in a dark place.
Good survivors always concentrate on the present, but plan for the future.
I recommend reading Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why first. These accounts focus entirely on extreme situations, kind of like Into Thin Air. I read it years ago so my memory is a little fuzzy, but it goes into the alarm that goes off in your brain when something doesn’t feel right. Few of us heed this alarm. We board planes on stormy nights despite our gut’s input because our minds know the odds of crashing are slim. We rationalize until potential life threatening situations are a dull murmur in a fog of Dramamine.
Reading a Gonzales book feels like you’re having a one-sided conversation with a giant mind who knows a lot about everything and enjoys connecting the dots. Or like we’re Martin Short in Innerspace, drifting through the human body with a chatty tour guide (Gonzales as Dennis Quaid as Lt. Tuck Pendleton) telling us what’s what. The writing is concise and deeply invested in its subject. And let’s face it, we’ve got a lot to learn about resilience. By “we” I mean “me”, but maybe you, too.