The New York Times Magazine recently published a story about a fisherman who fell off his lobster boat in the middle of the night, forty miles from Long Island. No one knew where John Aldridge had fallen off or when. It was hours before anyone discovered he was missing and only after his boat had traveled another twenty miles. Aldridge was lost in a swath of ocean the size of Rhode Island. (See http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/magazine/a-speck-in-the-sea.html.)
Reporter Paul Tough (http://www.paultough.com/) describes what Aldridge did to survive the 72 degree, shark-thick water for 12 hours with the knowledge that rescue was a near impossibility. While most of us will never be lost adrift in the ocean, several things Aldridge did apply to all of us, and to all aspects of our lives. In this post I focus on one of those things. Whether we are trying to solve a problem at work, dealing with a loved one’s health crisis, or drowning in debt, the first lesson of survival is to remain positive.
Many people misunderstand the relationship between optimism and reality. We tend to believe that as serious thinkers, business people or lawyers, we have to reside in the folds of cynicism and skepticism. However a pessimist can be just as wrong and unrealistic as an optimist, and with deadly consequences. Even self-claimed “realists” slam the door on the opportunities, possibilities and facts that are right before them. Realistically, John Aldridge should have died.
In its survival training, the US Air Force teaches the Rule of Three. You cannot live more than 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water or 3 minutes without air. Equally important, you cannot survive more than 3 seconds without spirit or hope. When we abandon hope, as is inscribed on the gates of hell, we lose our ability both to recognize what we can control, and to take appropriate action. Hope is not ignoring the facts of a given situation or a wishing for a miracle. It is not a promise that you will survive being lost at sea, turn around a flailing product line or learn to trust again after a loved one betrays you. Hope is goal-directed thinking. It requires a sense of efficacy: a recognition of what you can control. If we allow ourselves to get lost in the vastness of the problem – being adrift at night in the midst of the sea, losing your job or being diagnosed with cancer – it can crush our spirit. It can blind us to the things right before our eyes that can aide in our survival or promote our growth, thriving and meaning.
Rather than focus on a reality as deep as the ocean, Aldridge just tried to stay afloat until morning. When daylight came, he set his next goal: Find a buoy. Go as far as you can see, and then you will be able to see further.
Rather than discard his boots as dead weight as he had been taught, Aldridge found that they could help him float and delay fatigue. You may already have the resources you need at your feet to help you shoulder your burden. You will only notice them if you remain hopeful, positive and open.
And when after nine hours in the water, his boat passed within quarter mile of him on its way to the horizon, Aldridge bound two buoys together so he could rest his sunburnt, exhausted body. Despite everything we’ve longed for, striven toward, or based our lives upon, there is so much that we cannot control. From time-to-time, life unexpectedly reaches out and bludgeons us. But if we accept these soul-shattering disappointments as the entirety of our fate, we will fail to lash together those things that keep us afloat. In addition to helping us find pathways to our desired goals, hope keeps us going. It involves “agency” thinking. It provides the energy, motivation and fuel to keep us moving. Without hope, Aldridge would have likely given up, and not taken the steps that kept him alive.
Of course, many people who remain positive drown in the sea, persist too long at failing businesses, or have their faith betrayed and hearts broken. Every survivor story, every success story, is also a story of luck. But just as there are those who survive and others who would have died no matter what they did, there are a percentage of people whose death could have been avoided; people who remained buckled in their seats as the plane burned around them.
Regardless of what hard, brutal facts life presents, maintain your calm. Keep looking for what you can control. Pay attention to how your routines and everyday objects might yield new tools or insights. Look for the helpers that are all around you all the time. And never let go of the hope that will keep you going.