As Hurricane Earl speeds toward New England, we grasshoppers wonder if the lights are going to stay on over the weekend, and we eagerly turn to Matthew Stein’s extensive survival resource When Technology Fails . Recently, Mother Earth News began a series of excerpts from the book. Here’s the first:
The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails  by Matthew Stein (Chelsea Green, 2008). This comprehensive primer on sustainable living skills — from food and water to first-aid and crisis management skills — will prepare you to live in the face of potential disasters coming in the form of social upheaval, economic meltdown or environmental catastrophe. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Emergency Measures for Survival. The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost, or feeling distressed about things going badly … Life’s best survivors can be both positive and negative, both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.
— Al Siebert, Ph.D., The Survivor Personality
The struggle for survival is a fascinating and inspiring subject, forming the basis for many of the most memorable books and movies. Psychologist Al Siebert’s personal fascination with survivors began when he received his military training from a group of veteran paratroopers. His teachers were legendary members of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment. They had lost nine out of 10 members in combat in the Korean War. Siebert found that these “survivors” were not the crusty, yelling drill sergeants that he had anticipated. They were tough, yet showed patience. They had a good sense of humor and were likely to laugh at mistakes. They were positive, yet also looked at the downside of things. They didn’t act mean or tough, even though they could be as mean and tough as anyone. Siebert noticed that each of these men had a type of personal radar that was always on “scan.” He realized it was not dumb luck that had brought these men through their ordeals, but a synergistic combination of qualities that tilted the odds in their favor. Al believes that we can all benefit in our daily lives by nurturing and developing these positive character traits within our own personalities.
In 1943 Robert Muller was a member of the French Resistance. Using the name Parizot, he had infiltrated an agency of the Vichy government, where he gathered information on German troop movements. Tipped off that the Nazis had just driven up to arrest him, he fled to the attic of his office building. Word came that half a dozen Gestapo men, knowing he was there, were methodically searching the premises. Having been impressed when a friend used Dr. Emile Coué’s program of autosuggestion and positive thinking to cure himself of advanced tuberculosis, Muller quickly calmed himself and took control over his thoughts. He repeated to himself that the situation could be seen as a thrilling adventure, and switched his perspective to a calm, confident, positive state of mind. Muller told himself that nothing was hopeless and that he must find the one-in-a-thousand chance of escape.
Suddenly he realized that the one thing the Nazis would not expect him to do was to walk downstairs to meet them. By taking off his glasses, slicking down his hair with water, grabbing a file folder from a vacant desk and lighting a cigarette, Parizot managed to change his appearance somewhat. Walking downstairs, he came upon his secretary as she was being interrogated. He asked her what all the excitement was about. Her heart pounding, she managed to maintain an outward appearance of calm, and replied that the “gentlemen” were looking for Mr. Parizot. “Parizot?” he exclaimed, “But I just saw him a few minutes ago on the fourth floor!” The Gestapos rushed upstairs, giving Muller the break he needed to proceed toward his next obstacle, the guards at the front door. In the main lobby, the concierge informed Muller that there was another exit, and guided Muller to the garage, where he stole a bicycle and rode to safety.
— Robert Muller, Most of All, They Taught Me Happiness
Typical Survivor Personality Traits
Flexibility. The No. 1 trait to which many survivors attribute their success is the ability to adapt to the situation.
Commitment to survive. When conditions are extremely difficult, it takes a strong will and commitment to survive. Jewish Holocaust and Bataan Death March survivors tell tales of watching their friends lose the will to survive. Under these harsh conditions, after the drive to survive was lost, they usually lasted a short while, ranging from a few hours to a few days.
Staying cool. Survivors have the ability to stay calm or regain calmness so they can think clearly and intuitively “feel” their way to a correct choice, without being hampered by emotions that have run amok.
Playful curiosity. Survivors usually like to know how things work. They show a playful curiosity that helps them adapt to changing circumstances.
Sense of humor. The ability to laugh helps people manage under the worst conditions. My father in-law, Joseph Jussen, a Dutch resistance fighter and World War II hero, was captured and tortured by the Nazis for months before he was freed in a daring escape. Later, as a Dutch marine in the Indonesian revolution, he survived while most of his company was killed. Throughout his life, he maintained a great sense of humor and loved nothing more than to make people laugh. His favorite saying was, “Make you happy!”
A mixture of opposites. The typical survivor is not always either hot or cold. Survivors have the ability to blend optimism with pessimism, so they can see the faults in a plan, but are not paralyzed by negativity. They combine humor with seriousness, self-confidence with a critical eye, and so on.
Intuition. At some point in our lives, we have all had demonstrations of the power of intuition. The rational mind makes decisions based on the available information, which is always imperfect at best. Intuition appears to give us the ability to move beyond the limits of time and space, to “see around corners” that the rational mind can’t breach.
“Get over it.” Most survivors don’t waste a lot of time lamenting mistakes and losses. They move on and deal with the situation, unhampered by paralyzing regrets and disappointments.
“Bad patients.” Bernie Siegal, founder of Exceptional Cancer Patients, observed that survivors who beat the odds against cancer and other life-threatening diseases were usually “bad patients.” These patients typically questioned their doctors and took an active role in their recovery, whereas “good patients” did just as they were told, questioned very little, and often died right on schedule.
Rule followers. Like the “bad patients,” survivors are generally not good “rule followers.” Many of the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse were told by security guards that the second tower was safe and to return to their offices. Others were told by firefighters to stay put until they returned and escorted them out. In his book, Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales tells the story of Julianne Koepcke, a 17-year-old girl who survived the midflight breakup of an airplane flying over the Peruvian rain forest. Ill-equipped and without any survival training, she took 11 days to find her way out of the jungle to a hunting cabin and rescue. During the same period of time, a dozen adult survivors of the same crash “followed the rules,” stayed put, and died while waiting for rescue (Gonzales 2004, 172 – 174).
Intuition: A Survivor’s Powerful Ally
We think conscious thought is better, when in fact, intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic. Nature’s greatest accomplishment — the human brain — is never more efficient or invested than when its host is at risk. Then, intuition is catapulted to another level entirely, a height at which it can accurately be called graceful, even miraculous. Intuition is the journey from A to Z without stopping at any other letter along the way. It is knowing without knowing why. Some people say about rape, for example, “do not resist,” while others say “always resist.” Neither strategy is right for all situations, but one strategy is: Listen to your intuition. I do not know what might be best for you in some hazardous situation because I don’t have all the information. Do not listen to the TV checklist of what to do, or the magazine article’s checklist of what to do, or the story about what your friend did. Listen to the wisdom that comes from having heard it all by listening to yourself.
— Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence
From climate change to terrorism to an economy clouded by the peak in global oil production, we all face a future filled with uncertainty. Whatever actions and strategies we may have used successfully to guide our lives and businesses over the past few decades may not continue to work in this next period of rapid change. Clear intuitive messages can provide the extra guidance needed to navigate the murky waters of an uncertain future. I like to call it the intuitive edge, and many businessmen take high-priced seminars from intuitive experts to improve their “gut feel” and the accuracy of their business decisions.
When Technology Fails  is available in our bookstore.