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In This Article
Illustrations by Joe Oesterle
When the proverbial excrement hits the fan, why might someone who’s considered fragile or vulnerable survive, while the seemingly tougher one fails? Before training, gear, and prep, there’s something more foundational to our survival. That foundation is our human spirit.
Nine-tenths of survival is psychological. If you don’t have the willpower to persevere, all that great gear may as well be nonexistent. In reality, survival gear is meant to be an adjunct to your survival instincts. We’re here to help you hone those—lest you be in a situation like the following one experienced by a young John F. Kennedy.
He led nine survivors on a 3-mile swim to landfall, while towing another who was badly burned using a strap between his teeth. Over the next six days, he swam dozens of miles to seek help. He sliced up his feet on coral reefs, risking death (or worse) by infection, currents, dehydration, capture, or attacks from oceanic predators.
Beyond physical and mental exhaustion, JFK said he drew on a spiritual strength, fed by his command responsibility for his crew. Eleven of his 13-member crew survived after a Japanese destroyer sliced his boat, PT 109, in half.
Warriors, artists, and healers have long recognized this power within ourselves. It’s described in metaphoric, religious, ethical, and transcendent terms. At the cusp of life and death, the human spirit can make or break us.
The spirit is the metaphoric stone tablet of the presuppositions of our being, and it drives our deepest emotional, ethical, societal, mental, theological, and physical responses. One might say the spirit is the foundation from which we make choices. It includes:
When our spirit is troubled and things happen that shake this foundation, it manifests itself in powerful emotions. For example, two police officers could be confronted with an armed suspect; identically trained, each officer draws their weapon and stops the threat, killing the suspect. In the aftermath, one officer processes the emotions, embraces the lessons learned, and moves forward. The other officer suppresses the emotion and begins to have recurring stress, bad dreams, and is eventually diagnosed with PTSD. This is deep emotional territory, life and death. If, in a survival situation, a life is taken and we come to terms with that choice, we can move forward. But if we get emotionally jacked up, we can suffer from an invisible injury that can make the rest of our life spiral out of control.
If, in the face of our own death, our certainty of life and survival rises up from the spirit of our being, we can do miraculous things. But if we believe it is our time to die, that the odds are too great, then they are … and we will. So, we must condition our spirit before the worst of the worst happens. In a SHTF situation we won’t have time for hesitation, so it’s important we map out our emotional wiring so we don’t short circuit when we’re under extreme stress.
The spirit is the place from which we’ll decide to kill, and the place from which we choose to survive. Let’s look at an example of someone put in this situation and the resolve they willfully demonstrated.
In 2003 Aron Ralston fell and his arm became inextricably lodged between boulders in the canyon he was exploring while hiking in Utah. With no expectation of rescue, he cut off his own forearm using the knifeblade in a cheap multi-tool and hiked to safety. He demonstrated a will to survive. At his spiritual foundation, Aron Ralston’s desire to live outweighed the cost of an arm, and the excruciating pain of its removal.
The spiritual strength to kill is harder to illustrate. Imagine a Marine Corps sniper looking down his scope at a 12-year-old headed for his buddies with a bomb strapped to her body. Imagine if, after SHTF, we were looking through the scope and our families were at risk. There’s a lot to work through in order to be OK with taking a life that may jeopardize our loved ones.
When these situations rear their ugly heads, there won’t be time for these questions. Will we kill or be killed and how will we live with the consequences?
We live in a democratic republic that affords due process, and other protections provided by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These are the conditions we operate under in a stable American society. The spirit has adapted to these norms.
Here are two exercises to prepare: the first is called pre-flection, a visualization exercise of ethical consequences.
The second is called emotional self-aid. Spiritual trauma, moral injury, and traumatic stress disorders manifest with emotional outbursts. This is an exercise to deal with those emotional flare-ups instead of suppressing them.
One could call this exercise spiritual stress inoculation. It plays out the ethical consequences of a life-and-death decision before being faced with this kind of reality. It prepares the spirit for what follows such an event.
Outline a mock scenario where you have to kill someone to protect yourself or others. Write it in sort of a classroom assignment format as a logical exercise.
Example: You’re forced to shoot a poacher who is stealing a deer on land you’d planned to use to feed your family. Choose a quiet time where you can focus your thoughts and recall this scenario with a focus on what you may feel in that situation, moment by moment.
Visualize the scenario step-by-step, imparting as much realism as possible. The key is to feel the reality as if you’re watching it unfold. Make the people authentic, not like comic book villains. Be vivid in your description. What do people look like? What time of day is it? Where are you living? What are the thoughts racing through your head as you make this decision? Write it as if you’re a novelist.
Imagine the aftermath: the shooting, the body, the surroundings, how your family might react. Imagine it until you feel it, the anger that forced you to pull the trigger, or the anguish that you took a life, or the sheer disbelief—whatever comes to your heart and mind. The intent is to shake your spiritual foundation, to make yourself painfully uncomfortable with what happened.
Now back off the image and work through the feelings. What did it feel like? Could you do it? Would you do it again? Write down the results, date them, and file it.
Run the exercise several times, leaving days or weeks between. After four or five repetitions of this exercise, go back and see the progress that has been made.
Pre-flectioning the scenario aligns spiritual issues of what we should do and what we will do. This will be the time to uncover and, as necessary, change the deep truths of what we believe and are willing to do.
Pain, injury, death – and life, in general – can raise unfamiliar or undesired emotions as the spirit adapts to new circumstances. When we shove those emotions into a box, it’s inevitable that the contents of that box will eventually permeate other aspects of our life.
While in seminary, I traveled to Israel for a short-term study. During that time, we witnessed a protest of the recent death of a young Palestinian man taking place at the Church of the Nativity. This protest was surrounded by the Israeli military. When a young Palestinian woman thanked us for being there, because the Israelis were “less likely” to fire with American tourists present, it affected me much more deeply than I realized at the moment. In that instant, I simply packed all my conflicting emotions into a box and tried to leave the area as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until we returned home that the shame of what might have been seeped into my consciousness.
Survival in a SHTF situation will leave us tired and distracted enough. Adding the burden of emotional turmoil on top of a disaster scenario is nearly guaranteed to overwhelm. Training our coping mechanisms ahead of time will lessen the blow of any circumstance we might not have prepared for. Unlike going to the range, one doesn’t simply sit and practice anger. This exercise is practiced in real life.
Prepare a list of emotional identifiers. An easy system is “glad, sad, mad, bad, and afraid.” Name the emotions as they come to mind as you walk through a variety of events in your memory that span the emotional spectrum. It’ll be very clunky at first.
Expand and adapt your own vocabulary through real-life experience. For example, your kid crashes and totals your new pickup—mad doesn’t begin to describe it. Build the vocabulary. The more descriptive or colorful the language, the more it’ll make sense to you.
Be aware of involuntary physical reactions. Elevated heart rate, jitters, sweating, shallow breathing, etc.—maybe anger triggers a freeze because you fear lashing out. When these physical manifestations of emotion happen, calm can be achieved with tactical breathing. Lt. Col. David Grossman explains this process in his lectures to law enforcement officers—using both our voluntary and involuntary physical reactions as handles to regain self-control.
Tactical breathing (breathing in, holding, breathing out each for a count of four) will calm the physical processes and eventually ease those emotional triggers. As you work it through, catalogue the physical reactions. Learn to recognize when yours are coming to the surface.
Ultimately, this is an exercise in self-awareness. Practiced in the relative safety of everyday life, it provides tools to work through the potentially overwhelming emotions that’ll come when the world is turned upside down.
There’s a sign in a law enforcement training facility that says, “In times of trouble, we do not rise to the occasion, but fall back to our level of training.” This includes the human spirit. It’s one thing to claim we would kill to protect our families. It’s quite another to actually do so. It’s one thing to declare that if caught in a bear trap, we’d hack off a leg to survive. It’s quite another to have the spiritual power to actually cut into your own flesh if the need calls for it.
Most of the time, the human spirit doesn’t manifest itself. Our conscious mind is adequate to deal with the choices of normal life. When we go off the cliff of proper behavior to behavior to contemplate what’s worth dying for and what’s worth killing for, the spiritual trauma will manifest as powerful emotions.
In that moment, when we have to decide to live rather than die, no matter how grim the odds may be that choice is a spiritual one. From the spirit flows a wellspring of strength when all else has failed. Spiritual strength allows us to transcend limitations.
Peter Hofstra is a law enforcement, fire department, and emergency management chaplain. He works actively at developing the skills of these heroes to better prepare himself to survive and be more effective working alongside these first and second responders. His pastoral work has been in the understanding, development, and strengthening of the human spirit as a creation of the Almighty in every person. He resides in central New Jersey with his wife, Lynn, and their two children.
As depicted in the film 127 Hours, your spirit will determine your willingness to go to extreme measures to survive. If you were in the same situation, could you bring yourself to amputate your own arm? If not, what would it take for you to reach that level of determination?
Much like soldiers experience during war, you'll be forced to make split-second, lifesaving decisions in a grid-down environment. Preparing psychologically for emotions you might face during TEOTWAWKI is key to survival.
Your brain only works as far as the words you have to describe what's in it. Writing down your emotions as you experience different events helps you handle difficult experiences and identify your emotions better.