By Terry Plotkin
I recently read an article on the BBC web site. Below is an excerpt: A boat was sinking in the Baltic Sea on September 27, 1994. Many people died. Survival experts were astonished at the high death toll. It appears that many people drowned because they did nothing to save themselves. The report stated, “A number of people… seem to have been incapable of rational thought or behavior because of their fear. Others appeared petrified and could not be forced to move. Some panicking, apathetic and shocked people were beyond reach and did not react when other passengers tried to guide them, not even when they used force or shouted at them.” John Leach, a military survival instructor who researches behavior in extreme environments at the University of Portsmouth, has found that in life-threatening situations, around 75% of people are so bewildered that they are unable to think clearly or plot their escape. They become mentally paralyzed. Just 15% of people on average manage to remain calm and rational enough to make decisions that could save their lives. (The remaining 10% are plain dangerous: they freak out and hinder the survival chances of everyone else.) “All you have to do is ask yourself one simple question,” says Leach. “If something happens, what is my first response? Once you can answer that, everything else will fall into place. It’s that simple.”
I suspect that the people on that boat were thinking about many things right before that boat began to sink, but there imminent demise was not one of them. That is understandable and normal. However, going through life refusing to face or even think about our mortality might prevent us from acting in a smart way when it shows itself. We spend our life looking away from death, pretending it isn’t there, believing it can’t happen to us. Strange that something this inevitable is avoided.
Under normal circumstances, most people adapt to the situations that are unanticipated. They change their plans because of bad weather, they look for a new place to live if they are being evicted, they change directions when the road is closed. But when they are suddenly faced with their own mortality they seize up. When we most need to be clear-headed and fast-acting, just the opposite occurs.
The truth is that life and death moments hover constantly around us. We just don’t think about it. Read the newspaper and witness what is going on daily: wars, random shootings, terrorist attacks, freak weather, Ebola, the obituary page. Take a drive down the road and observe how quickly disaster can strike. The other day while riding my bike down Main Street, a biker, just 10 yards in front of me, was struck by a car. I saw it coming as the driver was pulling into an angled parking spot and I could see she was paying no attention to anything but her destination. The bike rider got knocked over but was unhurt. Good thing or his plans would have been seriously changed. (The woman said, “That is why I don’t ride bikes, it’s too dangerous.” I hope she also considers not driving a car for the same reason.)
Meanwhile, in a seemingly stealth move that struck ever so slowly, my mother has become quite old and she often remarks in her decrepit state, “You don’t think it is going to happen to you, and then here it is.”
I like what the Boy Scouts say: Be Prepared.