Tag Archives: compassion

Survival

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I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of survival. I observe that we as a culture are obsessed with heroes and rebels and the endless struggle between archetypal good and evil. Survival kits are becoming a thing in marketing. Preppers write blogs and have TV shows.

Interestingly, our social and cultural world actively inhibit our ability to survive in all kinds of ways. Public school education might be said to be a long indoctrination in anti-survival. We spend hours with our mouths open in front of screens in dark rooms, enchanted by movies and games. Congregations of fans share reverence for comic book characters and the happenings in galaxies far, far away. We debate, criticize and celebrate the way these carefully constructed heroes dress, speak, look, act and collaborate with special effects. We have high expectations of our heroes. We imbue them with nostalgia. We expect our heroes to be just, compassionate, intelligent, interesting, attractive, moral, humorous, strong and poised.

Meanwhile, dangerous events take place in our families; in our workplaces, subways, airports and schools; in our world.

We wait for someone to neutralize the danger, clean it all up, drain the swamp, and make it all fair. We wait for rescue. We turn a blind eye. We do whatever it takes to distract ourselves from uncertainty, fear and our own powerlessness. We watch the beast lumber toward us and deny its presence, deny its existence until we find ourselves in its belly, and then we still refuse to believe.

I’ve been reading author Laurence Gonzales. He’s written several books (see my Bookshelves page). We have Deep Survival and Everyday Survival in our personal collection. Gonzales has made the subject of survival his life’s work. He’s traveled extensively, synthesized studies and research and spent hundreds of hours interviewing people involved with all kinds of catastrophes, both natural and man-made. His books are thoughtful, well-written, extraordinarily well researched and utterly absorbing.

Gonzales uncovers the astounding complexity of human psychology and physiology as he explores why we survive, and why we don’t. He’s discovered some profound and surprising truths.

The best trained, most experienced, best equipped people frequently do not survive things like avalanches, climbing accidents, accidents at sea and being lost in the wilderness. Sometimes the youngest, weakest female has been the sole survivor in scenarios like this. It turns out some of the most important keys to survival appear to be intrinsic to our personalities and functioning, not extrinsic.

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Gonzales does not suggest, and nor do I, that training, equipment and experience don’t count, just that they’re not a guarantee. In some cases, our experience and training work against us in a survival situation, because we assume a predictable and familiar outcome in whatever our activity is. We’ve made the climb, hike, journey before, and we did just fine. We’ve mastered the terrain and the necessary skills.

Mt. Saint Helen’s had never erupted before. Therefore, all those people who stood on its flanks and watched in wonder failed to grasp that something new and unprecedented was happening. Their inability to respond appropriately to a rapidly changing context killed them. The same thing happens during tsunamis. People are awed and transfixed. They have no direct experience of a tsunami bearing down on them as the water rolls back to expose the sea bed. They don’t react in time.

There’s a model called the OODA loop. The acronym stands for observe, orient, decide, act. Our ability to move quickly through the OODA loop is directly linked to our ability to survive.

Observation, the ability to be here now, the ability to recognize what is, is something everybody can practice all the time. No special equipment or training needed. What is needed, though, is the emotional and cognitive willingness (consent, if you will) to set aside our distractions, addictions, rigid preconceptions and expectations (often invisible to us, making them even more deadly) and dependence on stimulation. It also requires a mind set of self-responsibility. It turns out movie theatres, schools, concert venues and many other places are not safe. We can debate, deny and argue; protest and rally; scapegoat and write new laws. We are and we will. In the meantime, the reality is we are increasingly unsafe in many public places, and no one has the power to wave a wand and take care of that for us.

It’s up to us to take care of ourselves. That starts with observation.

In my blog on self-defense I mentioned situational awareness. Our instructor emphasized that skill as being more important than any other move or weapon. If we see or sense something dangerous in our vicinity, it’s up to us to orient and move to a safer location.

That brings up another very important survival skill: instinct. At this point science cannot measure instinct, but Gonzales’s instinct about getting on a certain plane saved his life once, and many of us have similar stories. As far as I’m concerned, instinct is part of observation. What do we observe? How do we feel about what we observe?

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Our instinct is blunted in all kinds of ways. It’s mixed up with political correctness, including racial profiling. Few of us want to demonstrate discomfort around others for any reason these days. I invariably feel guilty when I react to someone negatively, even if my reaction is entirely private. It’s bad and wrong to criticize, to judge, to cross the street to avoid somebody. It’s ugly and hateful.

Additionally, I’m a woman and I’m highly sensitive, which makes me particularly attuned to body language, voice inflection and all the clanging (to me) subtext of communication beneath whatever words are spoken. I can’t prove my intuition. I can’t demonstrate it logically. I have no wish to diminish or disempower others. I’m not a bigot. All people have energy and sometimes it’s foul. I reserve the right to move away from it. If that makes me hateful, woo, dramatic or hysterical, so be it. I’m accomplished in the art of noncompliance, but many are not.

If we only see what we expect to see, we aren’t observing. If we fail to see what we’re looking at, we’re not observing. If we can’t take in the whole picture, we’re not observing. If we look for something instead of at everything, we’re not observing. We’ve already broken the OODA loop.

Observing and orienting mean coming to terms with what we see. The plane is down. Our ankle is broken. We’re lost in a whiteout blizzard off the trail. We can’t decide how we’re going to survive if we’re unable to accept and orient to what is.

As a young woman, I did fire and rescue work. I was an IV-certified EMT, and I learned in those days that panic, fear and despair are killers. They’re also highly contagious. People who survive lock those feelings away to deal with after they’re safe again. Gonzales found that, amazingly, some people will sit down and die, though they have a tent, food and water in the pack on their back. They just give up.

I also learned that the hysterical victims are not the ones most likely to die in a multiple trauma event. They demand the most attention, certainly, but it’s the quiet ones who are more likely to have life-threatening injury and slip away into death. The screamers and the drunks, the ones blaming, excusing and justifying, are frequently the cause of the accident and retard rather than assist in the survival of themselves and those around them.

On the other hand, strength, determination and calm are also contagious. If just one or two people in a group keep their heads and take the lead, chances for survival begin to increase for everyone.

When I was trained as a lifeguard and swimming teacher, I learned something that’s always stayed with me.

You can’t save some people. It’s possible to find yourself in a situation where, in spite of your training and best efforts, the victim is so combative or uncooperative, or the circumstances so impossible that the choice is between one death or two. This fact touches on my greatest impediment to survival, which, ironically, is also one of my greatest strengths.

My compassion and empathy mean that I frequently put the needs of others before my own. I do it willingly, gladly, generously and out of love. It’s one of my favorite things about myself, and it’s also one of my most dangerous behaviors.

Consider a scene many of us are metaphorically familiar with. Someone nearby is drowning. They’re screaming and thrashing, weeping, begging to be saved. We throw them a rope so we can pull them out. They push it away and go on drowning because the rope is the wrong color. Okay, we say, anxious to get it right and stop this terrible tragedy (not to mention the stress-inducing howling). We throw another rope, but this one is the wrong thickness. It, too, is rejected, and the victim, who is remarkably vocal for a drowning victim, continues to scream for help.

Photo by Lukas Juhas on Unsplash

On it goes, until the rescuer is exhausted, hungry, thirsty, shaking, upset, desperate, deafened and feeling more and more like a failure. Meanwhile, the “victim” goes on drowning, loudly, surrounded by various ropes and other lifesaving tools. We, as rescuer, are doing every single thing we can think of, and none of it is acceptable or adequate. In our frantic desire to effect a rescue at the cost of even our own lives, we’ve ceased to observe and orient. We’re not thinking coolly and calmly. We’re completely overwhelmed by our emotional response to someone who claims to want help.

The survivor in this picture, my friends, is not the rescuer. The so-called victim is the one who will survive. If they do grudgingly accept a rope and are successfully pulled out of the water, they immediately jump back in.

The will to survive is an intrinsic thing, and I can’t give or lend mine to someone else. People who can’t contribute to their own survival, and we all know people like that, are certainly not going to contribute to mine, and some will actively and intentionally pull me down with them, just because they can.

I don’t have to let that happen, but in order to avoid it I need to be willing to see clearly, accept what I see, cut my losses and act in my own behalf. Real life is not Hollywood, a comic book or virtual reality. It’s not my responsibility to be a savior, financially, emotionally, sexually or in any other way. The word survivor does not and cannot apply to everyone.

It’s a harsh reality that doesn’t have much to do with being politically correct or approval and popularity, and most people have trouble facing it, which will inhibit their survival if they ever find themselves in an emergency situation.

Gonzales covers this at some length in Deep Survival, and he rightfully points out that compassion and cool or even cold logic are not mutually exclusive. People in extreme situations sometimes have to make dreadful decisions in order to live, and they do. A compassionate nature that does what must be done may buy survival at the cost of life-long trauma. Ask any combat veteran. This is the side of the story the Marvel Universe doesn’t talk about. Survival can be primitive, dirty and gut wrenching. Sending blue light and thoughts and prayers are not the stuff of survival.

Clear orientation leads to options and choices. Evaluating available resources and concentrating on the basics of survival: water, food, shelter, warmth, rest and first aid are all essential. Thinking coolly and logically about what must be done and breaking the task into small steps can save people against all odds.

Sometimes, death comes. Eventually, we all reach our last day. In that case, there’s no more to be said. Yet the mysterious terrain on the threshold between life and death is remarkably defining. I wonder if perhaps it’s the place where we learn the most about ourselves.

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I’ve known people who stockpile weapons and ammo, bury gold in bunkers, build off-grid compounds and obsess about survival equipment and bug-out bags. Many wilderness schools teach basic and advanced survival techniques. Some folks put all their financial resources into prepping for catastrophe and collapse. I’m nervous about the state of the world on many levels myself, so I understand, but I can’t help thinking that investing in a story about living in a guarded, fully-equipped compound is not much better than investing in a story that water will continue to run from faucets, a wall socket will deliver electricity and grocery shelves will hold food, forever and ever, amen.

After reading Gonzales, I’m considering that maybe simply living life is the best preparation for survival. Trusting my instinct; learning to manage my power and feelings; being aware of the limitations of my experience, expectations and beliefs are all investments in survival. Simply practicing observation is a powerful advantage. I don’t have money to spend on gear and goodies that I might or might not be able to save, salvage or retain if things fall apart. The kind of investment that will keep me alive is learning new skills, staying flexible and adaptive, developing emotional intelligence and nurturing my creativity. No one can take those tools away from me and I can use them in any scenario.

We’re born with nothing but our physical envelope. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest survival tool of all is simply ourselves, our wits and our will.

Survival. My daily crime.

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

 

 

Selchie

Selchie: A mystical creature who takes the form of a seal in the sea and a human on land.

I have a picture book from my childhood called Greyling, by Jane Yolen. It’s one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors, and I’ve told it as an oral storyteller for many years. When I began doing storytelling, I sought out all the selchie stories I could find and incorporated them into my programs.

I rarely tell a selchie story without fighting back tears.

I’ve lately revisited this wonderful material for my second book, and it occurred to me to explore why these stories touch me so painfully and deeply.

Selchie stories appear in the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Like all lasting oral traditions, they contain blueprints for navigating loneliness, exile, love, loss, competition, compassion, trust and power. A good story has many facets.

A common thread in selchie stories is that a seal comes to land, takes off its skin, and becomes human, usually a beautiful young woman. Subsequently, the skin is stolen by a man and the woman entrapped. In many of the tales, she marries  the man who has her skin (always a fisherman) and bears his children. Sometimes her husband promises that after a certain number of years he’ll allow her access to her skin again, but he doesn’t follow through for fear of losing her. Inevitably, the skin is found, often by a child, and returned to the selchie, who must then face a choice between her life with her family and her life in the sea.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

It is this choice that makes me weep. I know the agonized longing for what we are made of but can’t ever quite find.

As I observe the world and people around me, I think many of us feel in some way exiled from who we were born to be, from a place, from a tribal connection, from some integral expression of self. I believe this exile creates such an unbearable hunger we grasp at anything within our reach in order to appease it, becoming addicts, developing eating disorders and body dysmorphism, and struggling with anxiety and depression. We live in a culture of distraction and entertainment. We’re busy, noisy, exhausted, and inundated with information, stimulation, propaganda, manipulation and demands.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

We want what we are made of, but how do we find what that is? Why is it taken away or withheld from us? Why are we so often forced to choose between one thing we’re made of and another? This all lies at the heart of selchie stories, for the selchie is a creature torn between two worlds and two tribes, and we instinctively recognize this conflict.

Choice is so often grief. If a selchie re-dons her skin and goes back to the sea, she cannot return, for she already knows the terrible cost of losing her skin, and though she may love her children and even have grown to love the fisherman she’s with, she cannot trust him. In returning to the sea, she is joyous, but now the grief of leaving her children and the life she made on the land replaces her longing for the sea.

I was with a man who avoided choice. He said he didn’t like to choose one thing in case something better came along. My experience of this was that he didn’t want to commit. It meant we couldn’t plan a date, a weekly ritual or even a walk. If we did, he frequently cancelled at the last minute. It was painful for me, and it frayed our connection considerably as I vacillated between hurt and anger. Eventually, I gave up and made my own plans. I told him that his maybe-I-will and maybe-I-won’t approach didn’t avoid a choice but was a choice. He refused to take responsibility for that, and he was bitter about the choices I made subsequent to his.

I’ve also been with partners who believe we can have it all. One man walked away from any situation in which he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. It was a point of pride with him. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it all, and, as far as he was concerned, the world (and I) owed him that. Looking back, I see this as just another evasion of the heartbreak and consequences of having to make choices.

I think very few of us have the luxury of having it all. We come together and move apart, searching, seeking, fleeing and climbing ladders that we hope end in success. Many of us feel rootless in terms of place and tribe. We don’t really feel we belong anywhere on a map, and we have no rightful place in a human circle. We do the best we can, a choice at a time, and over the years those choices and their consequences teach us who we are and turn us into adults.

What we’re made of is not necessarily what we’re born into. What we’re made of is not necessarily the place we live in, the people surrounding us, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the car we drive or the color we dye our hair. What we’re made of is not always who we want to be, who we insist we are or who we’re expected to be. Discovering what we’re made of is an excavation of our dreams, our souls and our joyous bodies. Many of us spend our whole lives finding one piece of ourselves at a time, stumbling, groping, picking up and discarding, searching blindly in the dark with nothing but our feelings to guide us.

On one particular day of no special consequence, my small toddling self, clothed in a yellow bathing suit with white trim, was lifted into a pool of water as big as the sea. From that day to this I’ve loved the water, and during occasional long, dry spells without access to swimming I dream of water and wake myself weeping with the anguish of my longing.

I’m a creature of water. It’s part of what I’m made of.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

For some years I lived in a city and laid awake at night watching headlights move across the ceiling and walls, straining to hear a precious moment of silence in between the sound of cars and sirens and too many restless people moving through the pale night. I dreamed of high, snow-covered mountains under starry skies and the peace of trees in unbroken darkness. Every day I died a little more, but I knew in my heart one day, one day I would leave the city and live in the shadow of the mountains I dreamed of. A thousand nights later I freed myself from the tentacles of that city, but I also left behind my marriage and the father of my children, my belief in happy-ever-after, the most lucrative job I ever had and the good wife and mother I wanted so much and tried so hard to be.

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At last, I slept in the shadow of snow-covered peaks in a small mountain town without pavement and street lamps and sirens. When I laid awake at night, I heard the cry of the vixen, the rushing wind, the owls calling to one another, the sound of the bear eating apples from the tree outside my window, or the raccoons cavorting in the tops of the pear trees like furry pirates.

I did not have it all. I had another piece of what I’m made of. I chose it, and I paid for it. I’m still paying for it, twenty years and thousands of miles later, and whatever the cost, it’s worth it. I cannot live in the city.

By the time my life is over, will I know everything I’m made of? Will I have lived with enough courage to choose what I’m made of, come what may? Will living true to what I’m made of sustain me? Will I ever find my own sealskin wedged between rocks, or locked away in a chest, or hidden in the thatch?

The selchie lives in a small cottage on the shingle beside the sea. She lives with a fisherman whose face is carved with a lifetime of loneliness that she has relieved. She and her children gather seaweed and driftwood, mend nets and dry fish and watch for the fisherman’s return, lighting a lamp and setting it in the window to welcome him home in the evenings. She lies with her man at night and listens to him sleep, and the waves come in, and the wind sighs through the beach grass, and she thinks of her sea kin and wonders how it is with them and if she’ll ever see them again.

Photo by Kace Rodriguez on Unsplash

The selchie takes the folded sealskin from her child and holds it to her breast, weeping, smelling its fading perfume of fish and sea, rubbing its softness against her cheek. She tells her children she loves them, but she must leave, and they clutch at her hands and her skirts, crying, not understanding what is happening. She tells them they will see her again, but in a different form. She cannot stop to explain, lest the fisherman return and her chance for freedom is lost. She stumbles out of the house, casting aside her clothing as she goes, until she stands naked in the surf and steps into the skin. The children follow, stricken and wailing, pleading with her not to leave, but her need for what she is made of is even greater than her love for them, and the surf takes her gladly in its embrace and carries her out. She looks back one more time, her great, dark eyes full of tears, before she dives into the arms of what she is made of and disappears.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Voices

For several weeks the depth of snow has limited my ability to walk on our 26 acres. Last week we had a couple of inches of rain that arrived with the scent of the sea and tropical warmth, followed by a hard, fast freeze. The rain melted a great deal of snow and we had flooding. The sudden freeze created a hard crust on the remaining few inches of snow, and as we returned to subzero winter temperatures I decided to see if I could get down to the river.

Photo by Vincent Foret on Unsplash

The crust supported my weight–sometimes! Other times I broke through and floundered up to my knees, the icy rind bruising and scraping my lower legs in spite of long underwear and heavy canvas pants. I saw tracks of deer and moose, rodents and birds in the snow. The river, ice encased, had thawed slightly and flooded during the rain, so the cracked ice was piled in slabs. In some fissures I could see open water. In other places thin new ice had formed and old, yellow ice lay flat but spider webbed with cracks.

As I stood next to the river catching my breath and marveling at the power of winter, I could hear the voice of the ice. It’s an odd sound, because it comes from beneath one’s feet rather than the sky or the world around. The ice pops and groans, sings and mutters and snaps. It’s a wild, unearthly voice, a chorus of cold water, cold air and cold crystals, the medley of flowing, living water and rigid winter armor. I wondered what it sounded like to the creatures hibernating in the river bed and the beavers in their dens.

The trees here have voices as well. When the wind blows they creak and groan as they sway, and their branches rub together, making a classic haunted house rusty hinges sound. In the deep winter when it’s very cold, sap freezes, expanding, and the trees explode with a sound like a gun going off. Sometimes they split right through the trunk.

So many voices in this world. Every place has its own special choir, every season its own song. The sound of a beetle chewing bark, the Barred owls calling to each other in the snow-bound January night, the agonized shriek of a vixen calling for a mate on a February midnight of crystal and moon, and the barely discernible high-pitched talk of the bats as they leave their roost at dusk are all familiar voices to me.

I’m a seeker of voice, a listener, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I know what it is to be silenced. Our world contains so much pain and suffering, such unimaginable horror and injustice that my compassion is frequently overwhelmed. I cannot staunch the wounds and wipe the tears of the world.

But I can listen. I can bear witness. I can stand and wonder and marvel at the wild ice, the mating owls, the hunting bats and also the handful of people in my life. For a few minutes, I can encircle another with my presence and attention, allowing their voice to speak freely, truly and fully. I can choose to have no agenda about the voices of others, no expectations or judgements.

I can also give that to myself. It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve reclaimed my own voice. That, more than anything, is why I began writing this blog. Once a week I sit in front of a blank page and write in my true voice. Blogging, for me, is not about validation or statistics. It’s not about trying to please anyone, click bait or competition. It’s about contributing my voice because I am also here, not more important but as important as anyone else.

Using our voice does not require a listener.

Listening to the ice and the world around me has allowed me to realize, for the first time, how deeply I’m committed to appreciating and supporting authentic voice. My appreciation is a thing apart from agreement or disagreement with what I hear. Speaking our truth is not a matter for criticism. It’s an offering of self, and listening without judgement is an acceptance of that offering. I feel no need to annihilate those I disagree with.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The dark side of voice is the voice that deliberately drowns everyone else out, the voice that silences, controls and distorts our world and our sense of self. The voice that deliberately destroys is an evil thing, a thing afraid and threatened by the power of others. Dark voices throw words like a handful of gravel in our faces.

An essential part of self-care is learning to recognize, minimize and/or eliminate our exposure to voices that we experience as destructive or silencing. This is boundary work. Note the difference between appropriate boundaries and dropping an atomic warhead. Healthy boundaries do not disrespect, invalidate or silence others.

I wonder what the world would be like if all criticism, jeering and contempt were replaced with “I hear you. I’m listening. I believe in the truth of your experience. You are not alone.” What would we be like if we gave that gift to ourselves?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

And what of lost voices? I don’t mean unheard or unremarked, but those voices who spoke, faintly, for a moment, and then were silenced so brutally and completely no one but the silencer heard their last cry. Such a person lives, breathes, walks, eats and sleeps, but he or she is a shell mouthing superficial words. Attempts to draw close, to understand, to share authentically and elicit a true voice in return are all in vain. The phone is off the hook. Silence and deflection are the only response. No one is at home. Love and listening count for nothing and behind the mask is only emptiness. Connection is denied.

How many voices can we truly hear? The world is filled with a cacophony of sound made by billions of people. Even here in the heart of Maine the voice of the river is punctuated by traffic noise. We all seem intent on increasing our exposure to voices via social media, 100 TV channels, streaming, downloading and YouTube. Does all this clamor make us better at listening and honoring voices? Can we listen to our child, our mate, the TV and read Facebook all at the same time?

Some people say they can, and perhaps it’s true. What I know is that I can’t. I don’t want to. I don’t feel listened to when I’m competing with other voices. I can’t hear myself when my day is filled with racket and din. I can’t extend the gift of presence to 100 friends on Facebook. I can’t discern between an authentic voice and a dark voice in the middle of uproar.

Voice is precious. It’s sacred. No created character lives in our imagination without voice. Silencing voice is a horrific violation. I have promised myself I’ll never again abdicate my own voice.

Honoring voice, yours, mine, theirs and the world’s: My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted