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Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why Paperback – October 17, 2004
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“A fascinating look into why we are who we are.”
- Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Enough
“Deep Survival is by far the best book on the many insights into epic survival stories I have ever read.”
- Daryl Miller, Chief of Mountaineering, Denali National Park & Preserve
“A feast of excitement and wonder. Makes complexity and chaos come alive, girdled by neurological processes, drenched with fantastic accounts of danger and death. You will see the world differently.”
- Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents
“Great stories of disaster and survival... combined with revealing science about the physiology and psychology of how we deal with crisis.... Accurate, accessible, up-to-date and insightful.”
- Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
“Laurence Gonzales has masterfully woven together personal survival stories with the study of human perception to reach rock-bottom truths about how to live with risk.”
- Peter Stark, author of Last Breath: The Limits of Adventure
“Professional rescuers will love this book. It goes to the heart of the instincts that drive us to risk our own lives to save others.”
- Jacki Golike, Executive Director, National Association for Search and Rescue
“Gonzalez takes us on a fascinating, fast-paced, and exciting adventure into survival. His captivating stories, many from personal experience, will keep you turning the pages, stopping only to imagine how you, and your brain, would react when faced with a survival experience.”
- Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self
About the Author
Laurence Gonzales is the author of Surviving Survival, Flight 232 and the bestseller Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. He has won two National Magazine Awards and is a scholar at the Sante Fe Institute. He divides his time between Evanston, Illinois, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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But this review is about Gonzales’ book, which aspires to “tell people [not] what to do but rather to be a search for a deeper understanding that will allow them to know what to do when the time comes.” His book tries to provide an overarching philosophy, really, for life survival, not just survival when you’re lost in the woods or hanging off a mountain. In fact, if there is a unifying theme of “Deep Survival,” other than survival itself, it is Stoicism. Quotations from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius litter the book, and their ideas permeate every page. For example, from Epictetus: “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.” This is because Gonzales believes, with demonstrated reason, that a Stoic approach to unexpected twists in life will maximize your chances for survival, in whatever situation you find yourself.
Gonzales ties all his stories and thoughts back to himself—back to his own growing appreciation for these principles he discovers during his life, and most of all back to his father’s experiences in World War Two and the rest of his life (he was a bomber pilot alive at the time this book was written, 2004). If you don’t like the personal angle, it may seem a bit navel-gazing. But he does a good job making himself and his family relevant, and after all, it’s his book, not merely a textbook for the wanna-be survivor.
Gonzales spends the first half of the book evaluating “How Accidents Happen.” In other words, most of what he focuses on is preventable survival problems. For him, if you stay home, there will be no survival problem. And, for the most part, if you go out into the wilderness and make the right choices, there will also be no survival problem. What Gonzales wants to know in this section is why people act in ways that create situations in which they must survive. His conclusion, shot through the book, is that it’s down to uncontrollable emotions, mostly for bad, but also for good. Quoting Remarque’s description in “All Quiet On The Western Front” of men who, having been at the front for a while, thrown themselves to the ground on sheer reflex, even before they can hear or sense a shell, Gonzales concludes “Emotion is an instinctive response aimed at self-preservation.” But that same instinctive response can also betray.
There is much talk of dopamine, brain structures, stress hormones, memory, and, in the end, “that quality which is perhaps the only one which may be said with certainty to make for success, self-control.” Our brains conspire to impel us by inciting emotions to do things that are not rational and not a good idea, but seem like a good idea to our brains. We need this type of decision making, since it is fast and effective, but it can kill us, if the emotion leads us to do something objectively stupid. Panic is only one of those emotions; pleasurable emotions are also extremely powerful. Controlling those emotions without losing their benefit is everything. And not just the control of manipulation—also the control of knowing what you don’t know. “A survivor expects the world to keep changing and keeps his senses always tuned to: What’s up? The survivor is continuously adapting.” “[T]he survivor ‘does not impose pre-existing patterns on new information, but rather allows new information to reshape [his mental models].’”
Of course, even choosing activities carefully while engaging in rigid self-control is often not enough. Accident always happen; it is the nature of systems, even simple systems. Small failures are self-correcting or at least not catastrophic, until the day they combine with other happenings to create total failure. As with a sand pile, which slides and collapses in unpredictable ways, you can tell that an accident will happen despite your best efforts, but not how or when. (It helps, of course, not to be stupid or have undesirable characteristics. Gonzales, like Ripley, casually slags fat people as unlikely to survive.) This is a commonality of systems: Gonzales notes that Clausewitz pointed out that military systems seemed simple, and therefore easy to manage, but “terrible friction . . . is everywhere in contact with chance, with consequences that are impossible to calculate.” Again, Clausewitz says a general must not “expect a level of precision in his operation that simply cannot be achieved owing to this very friction.” And trying to impose our own reality on actual reality when that friction starts to bite is disastrous.
Even if you choose carefully and have self-control, and avoid a system failure, you may still end up in a survival situation by simple failure of knowledge. If you don’t bother to inquire how the local waves differ from the waves you are familiar with, you may end up in trouble that you could have easily avoided. Gonzales does not promise that everything will be OK; he merely offers analysis and advice for maximizing the chance of avoiding problems.
Gonzales then turns to “Survival”—what to do when, for whatever reason, you’ve ended up in a survival situation. Many people “bend the map”—they try to, when lost in an unfamiliar area, rationalize how they are really in a familiar area. Don’t do that. Be as Stoic as possible. Accept your fate yet work to change it. Never follow rules given by others just because they are rules or because they are the group. Never give up. Fatigue is mostly psychological and difficult to recover from; rest proactively rather than pushing yourself. Balance risk and reward, then act decisively—be a “man of action.” Pray—even if it doesn’t work, it helps you focus and take action. (Although neither Gonzales nor Ripley emphasize it, both note that religious people are far more likely to survive.) “Plan the flight and fly the plan. But don’t fall in love with the plan.” Give yourself small goals and achieve small successes; follow a routine; create order. Focus on yourself, not on blaming others, or relying on them. And, ultimately, you may still die. “But what can be earned is a certain nobility—not in the sense of aristocratic status but in the sense of striving for quality and dignity of behavior and living.” The last is said by a wilderness firefighter of his daily job, but it can just as well be applied to a survivor in a single desperate situation.
None of what Gonzales says is all that startling. I imagine many of us would list some variations on these if asked the question, “what should one do to survive?” But Gonzales weaves these principles into a coherent whole, and links them to a range of interesting stories about real people. As with Ripley’s book, whose more cut-and-dried lessons Gonzales echoes, the reader can benefit quite a bit from this book, if you read carefully and absorb the lessons.
The author has a touch of braggadocio as he flaunts the reckless courage (or foolishness) he has exercised in his lifetime. But, I suppose, "It ain't braggin' if you done it."
I'm very glad to have read it. It has helped me see my past and present actions in a more detailed filter of "the right stuff" that all Achievers grasp for. And he inadvertently affirms many biblical or proverbial truths about a godly spirit, a spirit that simultaneously stretches for the stars, but exerts no grip on his actions. A state of being that is both intentional and Laissez Faire, or spirit led. It reveals a Zen like attitude of loving the very substance of your present state for the beauty that can be found there, and in the act of loving rather than fearing or dreading, anguish flees and creativity is borne. This is the very essence of a converted heart, a heart in tune with God, dead to self, alive to the spirit. This book channels these notions.
A pleasurable read.