Monday, May 4, 2009

The Art of Survival

The imperative to survive is confronting us more than at any other time in human history. There are very many more people; a haunting vulnerability pervades the air. An unmatched surge in the world’s population is guesstimated to propel humanity to the inconceivable head-count of 8,000,000,000 in 2025 and 10,000,000,000 in 2050. There is the never-ending desire for decent lodging, prosperous employment, low-cost mobility and lifelong wellbeing. Nevertheless, it has been by now substantiated that the Earth’s resources cannot gratify, even partially, the unrelenting yearnings of all of us. Multiplying social, political and economic disproportions are certain to instigate further discontent that in turn will egg on more conflicts and more dislocations upsetting whatever hopes of tranquility we may have aspired to.

Not all people care to survive. Many others care only that they themselves should survive. Individuals might concern themselves about living on and that others belonging to the very same global community of which they are a part will also live on. Although not necessarily infirm, people who are not particularly interested in enduring will do little to allow themselves to endure and generally are not vexed about the continuation of their fellows. They might not look properly after their health, they might “vegetate” their lives away in a slothful passivity, and they are baffling not only in their intimate social circles, they cause difficulties for their superiors and co-workers where they are engaged. They do not have to be criminals. These someones have no zest for life, sound off frequently, and are miserable and apathetic. They merely exist and at length become burdens on society which has to ante up for their untrustworthiness and refusal to exist for the betterment of their confrères. Most people who hate others first loathed themselves.

Then there are those whose individual self-interest is the actual motive of all conscious action, the valid end of their human activity. These types might dominate a close-knit grouping or even an establishment, and they must hold control of the system they superintend manipulating the network's subordinates to satisfy their cravings for power. Their sphere of activity is often constrictive and it is of course based on experience, tradition and more often than not family linkups. These swellheads thrive on what is determinate, and theirs is the exclusive mode to perform during whatever exigence that might emerge. Superficially, these egocentrics induce us to believe that their often sadistic modi operandi serve in fact the methodicalness of the governing body they and their underlings are ranked under, and so doing, their “beneficial” actions come to serve all, are for everyone's gain. They are not.

The third category is that to which this essay is directed, and it is the one from which we may derive a sense of hope—hopefully, too, the means to attain the expectations we are seeking. There are those causal agents to whom we may ascribe attributes unbeknown to the majority of society at large. These subjects need to make a contribution on behalf of others by caring for themselves foremost and subsequently reaching out to assist those with whom they subsist. All sound, forward-looking societies have had these characters to set the stage to set in motion an epoch of progress. These members of society are at the ready to take part, to contribute to the welfare of themselves and those in their company. They understand what it means to survive.

I am a survivor—so far! I have outlasted three 122mm Chinese rocket attacks, three or four mortar blasts, four months with an infantry company in the jungles bordering Laos and Cambodia, a plane crash, two robberies at gunpoint.... Still, I do not consider myself an expert. But I do recognize that I had something to do with my endurance. I have followed definite precepts that were taught to me. Notwithstanding, I have always been gifted with the will to enjoy life. Scito te ipsum!

My introduction to the theory of survival happed upon me when I entered the US Army on active duty as an artillery lieutenant in September 1966. Until that time I had drifted along in life not even thinking I might have to come through one day. In the artillery I was made to make myself self-sufficient and more important, careful. Discipline and anticipation of events were emphasized over and over and over in my training. In Vietnam, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, our 105mm howitzer artillery batteries could be hoisted into the air by Chinook helicopters, and then planted into some different point many kilometers distant. The routine for us was identical after each and every insertion. We followed the same rules, we erected the indistinguishable battery emplacement, we checked our instruments, secured the area, and were ready to shoot and communicate after being dropped into an often unknown, unfriendly environment. Above all, we could think that we might be transferred again in a matter of hours, or remain fixed in our new location for weeks or months. Maintenance was obligatory although not much appreciated, but it kept disgruntled unit members alert.

Parenthetically, the US Army was not up to sustaining itself in Vietnam, nor did it give its soldiers the motive, and the means, to create a new, propitious set of events. Soldiers were ill-equipped. Undisciplined. Apathetic. Many of them, lacking any hint of patriotism, shot themselves in the calf (The Million Dollar Wound), neglected to take their anti-malaria medication and then winded up in bathtubs filled with chunks of ice, and some even sought to kill themselves by volunteering—deriving pleasure or death from undergoing pain, abuse and cruelty—for hazardous missions: “Lieutenant, I'm not returning home.” The US Army accentuated, very stridently, that they had prepared us to fight in combat. This is not so. Most soldiers refused to trust anyone ranked above them. Disobedience was the norm in Vietnam where I had to hold up against both the “enemy,” whoever and whatever that was, and my own fellow combatants! In Vietnam, the US Army was a contradiction of its own terms and consequently doomed to failure.

My military experience, however insufferable, did inculcate in me a respect for life—my life! It made me appreciate the gift of being alive. That life had almost been taken away from me. Today, I am content to be alive. And I continue to follow the basic rules for survival many of which I learned in the US Army and employ even when I write this essay.
If you have set your heart on surviving, please listen to me. You cannot remain alive more than your family members, friends and colleagues by just wishing to. You must do your utmost to make it become a reality. Above all, you have to respect yourself before you can go on to esteem others. In fact, you are obliged to study, contemplate and seek responses to the uncertainties, about yourself and others, which haunt you.

One of the actions of great consequence to be taken is that one we are already familiar with: anticipation. Think before you act, and reflect habitually. Plan your days, weeks, months.... Set an endpoint you are inclined towards. Understand that victory comes hesitantly and has to be tracked down unswervingly and with adroitness. Do routine tasks as soon as possible to get them out of the way. With the time left over, concentrate on the various more pressing undertakings before you. Always endeavor to judge what is coming next. When you exit a bus, look to the left/right for oncoming vehicles. (I remember when the plane I was in was about to crash about an hour's flight from Caracas, I grabbed to my chest the four-year-old next to me, and realized that in four seconds we might be dead. My body was shaking with fear but I knew we all had to escape immediately when the twin-engine hit the water. In Vietnam, when 122mm rockets were incoming, my body shook convulsively but my voice was steady as a rock on my telephone operator's PRC-9 radio.) Do not go very fast—speed kills and not just on the highway. Sleep enough to be efficient. Eat correctly and be healthy. Without exception imagine that by not doing what is right for yourself and your body and mind, future complications will be caused by your negligence and stupidity.

It is accurate to say that preparedness is crucial to the prolongation of life or existence. In Vietnam, for every soldier on the battlefield, seven were backing him up. Helicopters had to be serviced, admin clerks typed reports, cooks prepared meals, doctors cared for the sick and wounded.... In our ordinary daily lives we must wash, clean our teeth, water the lawn and plants, iron our clothes for work on Monday.... We hold responsibilities that require us to react, and the realization of their success depends on our efficiency and enthusiasm. Being primed in advance is an enormous asset for achieving prosperity and living longer than most others.

To accomplish our mission (survival) we must cultivate the skill of self-discipline. To be in a state of readiness for whatever which might turn up, our attitude has to be set to change state to suit the challenge at hand. Repetition is an ugly word. So is routine. But these two sober-minded “axioms” must be complied with. We cannot secure anything worthwhile without being zealous and steadfast while doing our best to substantiate the meaning of our lives. If we fail to discipline ourselves when we forge ahead on the way to our last stop, we will ripen into very discomfited and discontented individuals.

Learn the meaning of the words “hard” and “strong.” We cannot be hard on ourselves unremittingly while being fervent about getting to our target. This is not clever. A person is strong when he or she knows when to be tenacious and when to be toned down. You ease up to be fit for the next bothersome occasion.

Authored by Anthony St. John
1 May 2009
Calenzano, Italia

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