Tag Archives: safety

Behind the Shield

Four years ago someone said to me “women and children should be behind the shield.” The impact of that statement was like a kick in the gut. I was shocked by the way the words made me feel; a tidal wave of fury, grief and despair. It was so overwhelming I didn’t poke at it right away, but ever since then I’ve been playing around with the idea of shields, my version of circling around a potentially dangerous object with twitching tail and ears pricked, curious but wary.

Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash

A shield is a piece of personal armor used to actively intercept specific attacks. Traditionally, shields varied in size, shape and thickness and were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. Shields have probably been around as long as we have.

A shield implies protection.

I think my initial reaction to the phrase “behind the shield” was painful because of my fierce, primitive longing for the kind of protection and safety that image implies to me. I’ve always been hypervigilant and concerned with identifying safe places. I know where the exits are, physical and emotional. I maintain bolt holes, if-the-sky-falls plans and a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency.

Because my own anxiety and fear have been such sources of private and mostly hidden anguish, I’m extremely sensitive to others who suffer in the same ways, either specifically or generally. In the days when I was doing volunteer fire and rescue work, I frequently took the role of lying on the highway in the glass, spilled gas and ruins of a vehicle calming and reassuring a trapped victim, monitoring a pulse if I could get to a pulse point, explaining what was happening as we tried to extricate, establishing responsiveness and orientation and taking a history while the fire department deconstructed the car around us and the EMTs and paramedics passed me pressure bandages, a blanket or anything else that was needed and we had room to use.

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In short, I give others, animals and human, the kind of calm reassurance and protection I’ve always craved myself.

It might be this longing is buried within all of us, a kind of deep and primitive desire to return to the ultimate safety of the womb or a longing for the in-arms experience every baby needs and has a right to receive. Except that the womb is not always safe, and many of us do not get sufficient in-arms experience as babies. It might be that I’m uniquely broken in this, but I doubt it. I suspect much of our irrational and destructive behavior has to do with trying to feel safe, sheltered and loved, including sexual and behavioral acting out and addiction.

In any event, my desperation to be shielded motivated me to become a willing shield for others. This adaptation was greatly assisted by being female and then further strengthened when I became a mother.

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I never thought of myself as a shield. It never occurred to me such a role was a choice. I defined myself as a protector, a nurterer, a figure of maternal and female strength, a life-giver and a peace maker. I thought of myself as a good woman. I automatically placed myself between the inconvenient, frustrating, dangerous, tedious and harsh edges of the world and those I loved. I protected my husbands and partners from the necessity to deal with anyone else’s needs (including my own) and threats to their egos (including me). I protected my sons from the immaturity and selfishness of my husbands and partners. I tried to protect people from their mental and physical pain, from the consequences of their choices, from their own feelings and from any other irritation, hurt or harm.

Shields were originally made to protect from specific kinds of attack, but I tried to shield others from all kinds of danger: blade, arrow, blunt weapon, words, pain, consequences, inconvenience, feelings and worry. I was determined to be a perfect shield for all my loved ones.

Predictably, I failed, and nobody likes a shield that fails. I regularly heard about my inadequacy.

No one ever suggested to me that I protect myself, and no one invited me behind their shield, even for a rest. I approached every relationship with a craving to be taken care of, to be held, to be loved. I believed in romance and part of romance certainly included being taken behind the shield of some kind, competent man. If you’re thinking this was needy and dangerous behavior, you’re right. Somehow, I always ended up with one more person in my life I needed to shield, instead of the other way around.

The inability to trust and the craving to be protected and cared for can tear a woman apart. I’m certain there have been people in my life over the years who wanted to give me safety and security, but I refused to let anyone get that close. I don’t want to rely on anyone. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. At the same time, I’ve spent much of my life working happily with children, animals, in hospice and as a first responder.

For a long time I thought if I could get a good enough job and earn or save enough money I’d be safe, but I was wrong about that. We live well below the poverty line, but I feel safer now than during any other time in my life. I’m also less concerned about money than I’ve ever been before. Money is not safety. I also thought if I could just find the right home I’d be safe. I found the right home and discovered that wasn’t the solution, either. Wrong again.

Since I came to Maine, everything has changed. Now I live in a situation that does not require constant emotional labor. I live with an adult who does not need or expect me to protect him. I have found reciprocal relationships.

This morning, as I went about my daily breakfast routine, it occurred to me that I’m no longer looking for a shield to crawl behind. The need for safety doesn’t drive me now. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by safety. What is the threat I’m trying to protect myself from? Aging? Poverty? Being unloved? Abuse? Getting my feelings hurt? A blow to my pride? Abandonment? Betrayal? Internet trolls? Loneliness? Crazy people with guns? Illness? Death?

Yes. All these and more. And most of these have already happened, some more than once, or are happening right now.

In spite of that, I’m okay. I’m better than okay. I’m great. I’m resilient. I believe in my ability to survive and thrive. I don’t mind aging and I’m not afraid of death. I’m emotionally intelligent and I understand power dynamics. I’m as safe as anyone, and a lot safer than millions.

Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash

I have my own shield now. I made it (without knowing what I was doing) out of dragonfly wings, cobwebs, stardust and the sound of bats flitting around my head in the dusky barn on their way out to hunt. I made it out of integrity, passion, dance, laughter, creativity, ritual and spirit. There’s room behind my shield for others to rest, breathe and make shields for themselves, but I’m not spending my days searching for those in need of such a shelter. I can’t make a shield for you or even my most beloved to carry. I can’t keep everyone or anyone safe. I can’t shelter the world.

The only person in charge of my safety is me. The only person I have a responsibility to keep safe is me.

I am not a shield. I don’t have to take the blows or go to war. I don’t have to buffer, neutralize or ameliorate the experience of life for others. I don’t have to prostitute and beg in order to be dragged behind someone else’s shield. I made exactly what I need for myself, and no one can take it away from me.

Knowing I have what I need, I’m no longer approaching interactions with others from such desperation to be cared for. I still don’t like to ask for help, but I’m practicing doing it anyway. I’m much better at taking care of myself and no longer put the needs of others before my own. I’ve developed useful coping mechanisms that help me feel safe.

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

We all construct shields emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally and with our choices. None of them really protect us from our fears or the experience of life. There is no way to shield against generalized fear and anxiety. It’s counterintuitive, but the best path I’ve found to feeling safer and more secure is to drop my armor and open my arms to my fears. I don’t know why that works, but it does. Monsters are ten times larger when I’m running away from them. When I run toward them they shrink before my eyes, and sometimes they even run away from me. That’s why I build my shield from things like iridescent hummingbird feathers and milkweed fluff. It won’t stop a harsh word or a bullet, but I carry with me joy, wonder, awe, mystery and beauty. My shield is a story of love and a story about what makes life worth living. It reminds me to stand tall and unafraid, looking life in the eye, confident in my ability to endure, heal, laugh and learn.

From behind the shield: My daily crime.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

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

Guns and Reunions

Sometimes being a writer is a pain in the ass.

I had several ideas for this week’s post, but when it came down to it all I produced was something I didn’t want to think about, remember or write about at all. I tried to stop and go back to one of my original ideas, but no matter where I went I ended up in the same place.

I’m old enough to know it’s much easier to ride the horse in the direction it’s going, so I’m writing the damn thing, but I want you to know I’m resentful about it.

Two seeds contributed to this piece. The first is that my partner will be attending his fiftieth high school reunion this summer, and deciding whether or not to accompany him has been a thing for me.

The second seed is the latest (as of this writing) school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and the story about the girl (who was killed) who allegedly rejected the shooter and how that may or may not have been part of the motive.

I don’t know what happened between these two young people, of course. I certainly don’t believe everything I read. Perhaps the shooter was bullied. Perhaps he wasn’t. Maybe the girl simply said no, and some people interpret that as bullying. Maybe he refused to take no for an answer and the girl was trying to get the message across with ever-increasing force. I’ve been in a position like that myself. I don’t know, and for the purposes of this post it doesn’t matter.

I think we all can agree that we have a problem with school shootings in this country, even if we don’t agree on the causes and solutions. I also think all the data gathering, debate and problem solving around this issue is extremely important. Along with everybody else, I have my own opinions about how we got here and what we might do about it, but my opinion isn’t part of this post, either.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

The reason I’m writing about it (the shooting, one of the alleged triggers for the shooting, and the entire problem of school violence) at all is because of the way it makes me feel.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

These are the same feelings I’ve had about the entirely trivial decision about whether or not to attend my partner’s high school reunion.

My days in high school were a black time I’ve worked hard to forget. I led a strangely reversed life then, like a photographic negative. My real life was the volunteer fire and rescue work I was doing, my family (including many animals) and reading, the frame around the central core of school. The fire and rescue work often took place at night, of course, and I well remember the fellowship, the macabre hilarity, the practical jokes, and the heartbreak, terror and death we saw on the highway. There were impromptu middle-of-the-night meals at Denny’s after delivering a patient to the hospital, when we were stinking of gasoline and had glass splinters in the knees of our jeans. I was the baby, the youngest, but I was trained and certified and did everything I could to pull my weight.

It was the first time I ever felt I belonged anywhere, or was of any use to the world.

School days, by contrast, were endless bleak hours of clocks, bells, the metallic slam of lockers, figuring out what was necessary in order to maintain straight A’s (which thankfully did not involve much attendance in most cases), and fatigue.

I can’t remember eating a single school lunch in either junior high or high school. Isn’t that strange? I must have, but I have no memory of doing so, or of the cafeterias. What I do remember is the high school library, where there were rows of study carrels — remember those? They were 3-sided square boxes on the desks so that each student was cut off and private, in his or her own little undistracted and unobserved space. I had one particular favorite, the farthest away from the librarian and activity, out of sight, out of mind. It was where I slept. I wore an old hand-me-down men’s quilted navy blue coat that I cherished, and I wadded part of it up as a pillow, pulled the rest over my head and slept for long stretches through lunch and classes.

I was (and am) very organized. I knew what my teachers expected. I always showed up for tests and did all my homework. Papers and projects were planned and completed well before they were due. I did all the reading, homework and classwork. If extra credit work was available, I did that. When I could take AP classes, I did. I never ditched AP English, which I loved. I also went to Latin, another favorite. German was fun, too. I was never any kind of a problem, in class or out of it. Most of the time, I was numb with boredom.

I wished only to remain invisible and maintain a 4.0 grade average. The invisibility was for myself. The grade average was because it was expected of me, and it was easier to just do it than to rebel. Also, I wanted to be finished with school as soon as possible, and the quickest way out was to pass all my classes.

Most of the teachers and all of the students were alien species. I moved among them like a ghost, a wisp of fog. I hardly opened my mouth. I occasionally raised my hand in class for the teachers who required participation for an A, but I’d learned in grade school not to volunteer too many answers, even if I did know them. I dawdled over my tests so as not to be the first one finished. I took pains to keep most of the teachers at a distance so as not to be identified as a “teacher’s pet,” another lesson from grade school.

I was never bullied, though I saw and heard bullying every day. I was adept at blending in and attracting no attention, positive or negative. I didn’t hate the other kids. I didn’t think much about them at all. I didn’t hate the teachers. I even respected a couple of them. I was angry all the time, but it wasn’t focused on anyone in particular, and I only recognize it in retrospect. I didn’t blame the teachers, the kids or my parents for the hell I was in. It never occurred to me there was any other option. Everyone had to go to school, period. My parents were busy people with lives of their own. There wasn’t anything they could have done and I saw no point in whining and complaining.

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The school day was bracketed by a 40-minute bus ride morning and evening, and I did my homework on the bus, which effectively shut out the noisy horseplay, teasing and other socialization that happened on it. I always chose a window seat somewhere in the middle and immediately set to work, never looking up from my notebook and books even if someone sat down next to me. If I had no homework, I read.

When I was a senior I finally learned to drive, somewhat unwillingly. I’d seen too much trauma on the highway by then to be enamored of driving. In the end, though, I learned and sometimes I drove our old Chevy truck to and from school, a battered tank of a thing that could cope with any kind of weather and wouldn’t crumple like a tin can at the slightest bump or ding. It was a faded brick red. If I had the truck, I abandoned the library and stretched out on the seat to sleep after parking on a quiet side street, cracking the windows and locking the doors. It felt very safe.

I do remember, as a great treat to myself, buying lunch in town when I had the truck, either at McDonald’s or a little health food store that made wonderful egg salad sandwiches.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

I remember one student I graduated with. One. I think I remember him because he was also a friend of my brother’s, who was a year behind me, and he was on the summer swim team with me. He was in my AP classes and became a scientist. He wasn’t a friend. He’s just the only one I remember.

On the other hand, I remember the fire station very well, and the rescue barn. I remember the smell of exhaust from the ambulances and big trucks. I remember the little offices where the phone and radio sat on the counter. I remember the meetings, the folding chairs, the scarred tables and the pancake breakfasts. I remember the battered coffee urns and the stained sinks, the water fights, the endless and hilarious practical jokes, the laughter, the weekly meals at the local diner, the parties, the trainings and the people. I later married two of the men I volunteered with in those days (not at the same time, of course!) I remember running up and down ladders for training, the impossible weight of portable water pumps (we called them Indian pumps) for fighting brush fires, the eerie sight of burning trees crowning in a blossom of flame against a dark sky and watching a house burn to the ground. I remember the sour smell of cooling “hot spots” after a brush fire. I remember the live feeling and weight of a charged firehose, enough to knock me over, and the way it peeled the shirt off you during a water fight.

For this treasured, meaningful part of my life, though, there was no acknowledgment. Rather the reverse. It wasn’t quite nice, a teenage girl running around with a bunch of older boys and rowdy, often bawdy volunteers, never mind that I took First Aid, CPR, EMT and IV training and loved it all. It also meant that I occasionally showed up in the company of the police at wild parties where someone got hurt or overdosed, which did not endear me to my high school peers. Not to mention that the first dead body I ever saw happened to be one of my schoolmates. I’ll never forget the broken-doll look of him as he lay on the highway, the glass glittering in his hair under the emergency lights. The only reason it was possible for me to do that work was that my mother did it too. She was quite a good paramedic, in fact.

My experience with high school took place in the late 70s and early 80s. We had a completely open campus. Certainly, things are different now in terms of security, at least. I wonder, though, how many kids are sitting in public schools across the country this very minute who are largely unseen, unheard and simply trying to survive.

Every time a shooting happens we get hours and hours of interviews, social media posts and videos of parents, teachers and students and their perceptions of the perpetrators, and I always wonder — did anyone, does anyone, can anyone really know their student, brother, son, teammate or classmate? How well does a high-school-age kid know him or herself? How much perspective can they have, how much experience in the amazing ways life can change over time? What has been their experience of connection with themselves and others? What is the level of their willingness and ability to communicate? Have they ever, in their whole lives, been given a reason to believe that asking for help or telling the truth helps, rather than making everything much, much worse?

My family cared about me. I remember going to counseling once or twice, both in school and out of it. Do you know what happens to kids who get in-school counseling? They get pulled out of class, right in front of God and everyone. Every single student and teacher in that class knows where they’re going. Not exactly a help when you’re trying to remain invisible. Also, the counselors are just as worn-out and frayed as all the other adults in a school, with an endless array of troubled kids, emergencies, difficult or distraught parents, and they’re trying to support the teachers as well. I was ashamed to be part of their burden and take up any of their time.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

We say some of these at-risk kids who become shooters are identified and “in the system,” and I think many components of “the system” have an honest desire to make a positive difference and work usefully with young people. That doesn’t mean the young person is able to avail him or herself of the support, though. I trusted no one at that point in my life. I wouldn’t have ever told the truth about my private thoughts and feelings. I’d already learned the danger of rocking boats, and I also knew that I was privileged because I was smart, we were comparatively wealthy and I had a family that loved me. I had nothing to complain about, and I didn’t. Nothing would have induced me to shame my parents and my extremely intelligent, talented and much more normal and attractive younger brother.

Now, thirty years later, kids are dying, and teachers, and school staff, as well as an occasional parent. We’re trying to understand. Some are trying to find someone to blame, as though that fixes things. But the parents of the shooters aren’t killing these kids. Neither are teachers or security personnel. Bullies and peers aren’t killing these kids. “The system” isn’t killing them, either, or the NRA. The one who pulls the trigger is the killer. I think it’s important to be clear about who’s ultimately responsible. The question is, what came before the trigger was pulled? What are all the intricacies and complexities that led to that moment of choice, and how do we begin to explore that terrain without the input of the shooter, who might or might not survive, and if alive, might or might not tell? If we can ever fully understand, how do we make changes in the roots of parenting, emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), public education (so-called), and our culture’s broken sense of connection and ability to be authentic?

If my school records could be magically produced, what would they show? Straight A’s. Honors student. Maybe a counseling note or two: Isolated, frequent absences, no behavior problems, no sign of abuse or cutting, not a danger to self or others,

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

People, that’s a paper doll, not a person. I’m smarter than most people I know. If I’d been a danger to self or others, do you think I’d have told anyone? Come on. I know we have social media now, but how much of what shows up on a teen’s social media is Truth? Teens compete, exaggerate, dramatize and make stuff up, just like the rest of us. Often there are clues, but they’re a lot easier to see after the fact, and that’s not much help, is it? It takes years to develop self-knowledge and insight, even if we’re willing to.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

I’m a parent. When my two sons were teenagers, I worked at the same school they attended. It was a small school and I knew every student, every staff member and most of the parents. I had a whole reality in my head about who my kids were and how they were doing. I loved them with my whole heart. I absolutely trusted them. I frequently knew when they were ditching school, smoking weed or leaving the house in the middle of the night. I didn’t bail them out of consequences or micromanage them. I was a single mom, working desperately hard to keep us afloat and trying to deal with my own experience.

I knew I wasn’t okay, but I wanted to believe they were. I was doing the best I could, loving them as hard as I could and making sure they knew it.

They did know it, just like they knew I wasn’t okay. They weren’t okay, either, but they knew I was doing my best, they didn’t want to burden me and they didn’t really know what they needed for things to get better anyway. Exactly the same position I’d been in two decades earlier.

The truth is, given the right circumstances, either of my boys could have been victims — or shooters. So, in fact, could I. That’s a hard thing to believe and a harder thing to write, but it’s true. Every single one of us has a snapping point, whether we admit it or not. High school can be a place of prison and torture, a place of no hope, an infinite incarceration, a daily experience of humiliation or fear. It can be a nihilistic experience, a daily exercise in powerlessness, in making oneself small, in concealment, in survival.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

And then there’s the other side of high school. Some amazing people in every class go to endless work and trouble to keep track of their classmates and plan and organize class reunions. For someone like me, this is both astounding and appalling. When my partner told me about his reunion this summer and asked me to come with him, it took me a minute to understand he was serious. Sure, and then can we go get our legs chopped off with a dull blade? Please, oh please?

But I know many people have great memories of clubs and sports teams, teachers and classes, proms and homecomings. My partner has lifelong friendships from high school. Imagine it, 50-year-old friendships! I met my closest friend when I was 30. What would it be like to have that kind of history with another person, that kind of intimacy? What would it be like to know someone liked you enough to be friends with you for 50 years?

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

High school. Guns and reunions. Looking for quick, inexpensive, politically attractive fixes. Heated debates. Demonstrations and walk-outs. Active shooter drills for schools and law enforcement and mass trauma drills for hospitals. Blameshifting, fear, mistrust, profiling. Blood, vigils, funerals and graves. Bullying, mental illness and lasting trauma. Lost kids. Disconnected kids. Dead kids.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

The cacophony of debate, press conferences, social media, opinions, interviews, political maneuvering, nonstop news feeds and raw videos goes on and on, and somewhere in the center of the maelstrom is the core of the problem — the young people who shoot, who die and who witness. Some of them have been swept into the hurricane, but I wonder how many are simply sheltering in place, trying to survive another bewildering, hopeless, pointless day of tech, teachers, rules, grades and peers. I know they’re there, because I was one. They could tell us a lot about futility, despair and disconnection. They’re keeping painful secrets. Are we willing to hear their truth? Do we deserve their trust? Do we have time or energy for them? Can we change anything for the better? Or would we tell them to get over it, that everyone has to do things they don’t want to do, that high school will be over one day? Do we paste a neat label on them and write a prescription? Do we insert them into a “system,” because that’s the best we have, and turn away to deal with our own jobs, responsibilities, stresses, scar tissue, labels and prescriptions?

I’m back where I started.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

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

Survival

Photo by Vladislav M on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

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?

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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

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Jennifer Rose
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