Survival for Realists

Issue No. 3 | March 4, 2022

Friends, Americans, Countrymen:

Optimism can destroy you. That’s one of the lessons we can take from Admiral James Stockdale’s eight years in a Vietnamese POW camp. In an interview with writer Jim Collins, Stockdale noted that the first of his fellow prisoners to break were the optimists – those who persisted in believing their rescue was imminent, until suffering one disappointment too many. Nor did those who succumbed to total despair survive. The key, according to Stockdale, was to find a middle way: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” 


Stockdale derived this way of thinking, which Collins labeled “The Stockdale Paradox,” from a crucial insight by the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus: the necessity of differentiating between what is and what is not in our control. For Stockdale, this meant not wasting energy speculating about their rescue. Instead he focused on leading his fellow prisoners in resisting their captors’s attempts to extract information and otherwise demoralize them. Stockdale himself went so far as to slit his scalp with a razor and bash his own face in with a stool to prevent the Vietcong from using him as propaganda.


Contemporary news organizations tend to focus our attention precisely on problems we can’t solve, aiming to inflame emotion as much as they seek to inform. Social media does a good job of exacerbating this tendency. Stockdale’s story reminds us to put impotent anger and reaction aside and train our efforts on what problems we can solve. For most of us these are to be found locally.


It is also locally that we’ll find that all-important faith Stockdale mentions. Mere optimism – the stuff of self-help affirmations or a politician’s stirring rhetoric – won’t cut it. What we need to prevail in the face of today’s brutal facts (or, indeed, the brutal facts of human existence in any era) is a hope rooted in deep and sustaining relationships with those closest to us – our God, our families, and our communities.


To read more about Stoicism and its influence on Stockdale, see this transcript of his 1995 lecture, “The Stoic Warriors Triad: Tranquility, Fearlessness and Freedom.



It’s hard to think of a more pressing “local” problem than potentially life-threatening injury to oneself or a family member. Even in a city or town, there’s no guarantee of securing prompt professional medical attention in time. Which is why we should all learn the basics of first aid.


While it’s certainly possible to improvise emergency treatment with whatever you have at hand (an extensive list of suggestions is here), it’s ideal to have access to a quality first-aid kit. My Medic produces a staggering range of general and speciality kits in a variety of sizes and prices, all built in the USA. They also sell a handy first aid and survival guide, as well as offering an online training course.


Of course, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the possibility of larger-scale threats to life and limb, ranging from a storm-induced power outages to societal collapse. As the editors of the excellent and comprehensive survival resource The Prepared write:


“There are a ton of very real and very serious possible emergencies, and you are likely to go through at least one of them in your lifetime. Probably more. The smartest, most rational experts in the world are coming to the same conclusion — the next 100 years are probably going to suck.” 


There is so shortage of sobering quotes like the above in the site’s introductory section, “Rational reasons why you should be prepared.” But the strength of The Prepared is how lightly its contributors wear their considerable experience and expertise. The tone is calm and friendly – it even makes the case for prepping being a fun hobby – and plenty of information is geared to the novice (there’s a particular emphasis on avoiding the purchase of useless, expensive gear and other prepper mistakes). Nor is there pressure to go “all in” in the face of looming apocalypse. Slow, steady, and sensible is a perfectly acceptable path towards preparedness. 


The only rule of survival in Drew Magary’s 2017 novel “The Hike” is “don’t leave the path.” We’re never quite sure what that means, though, and neither is our hero, Ben. He’s an “everyman,” but of a type we don’t often see these days: a regular, untroubled, office-working stiff with a wife and young kids.  


When a wrong turn on a work trip suddenly thrusts Ben into some kind of alternate dimension, his exasperation with the absurd fairy tale/video game quest he must undertake is very funny. Magary, himself a father of three and the author of the rare “dad memoir” to transcend Does-this-minivan-make-me-look-uncool? humor, doesn’t sentimentalize Ben’s “old” life. What we see of his job is clearly kind of mundane, and a phone conversation with his wife is affectionate but realistically brusque. But neither does Magary present Ben’s lot as something to be escaped for a more exciting and “fulfilling” destiny. Like any guy at this stage of life, Ben simply doesn’t have the time or energy for this crap. Even so, he heroically puts in the hours for the sake of the people waiting for him at home. 


Although Magary’s comedic skills are on display throughout the novel, the world he traps Ben in is vividly constructed and genuinely eerie. Page-turning genre stories that are also written with skill, style, and wit are hard to come by. Books like “The Hike” should be stockpiled for the day Skynet takes over and the e-readers revolt.


 Stitching up your own wound is like growing your hair long: looks cool when Keanu Reeves does it, but we doubt we could pull it off. We would certainly improve our odds by consulting one of the expert suturing tutorials freely available online. (Try this one). Some feats of self-care are so radical, however, that not even YouTube can guide you through them. Such is the case of Dr. Leonid Rogozov


The 27-year-old Soviet surgeon was stationed at a remote Antarctic base when he began to experience nausea and sharp abdominal pain – classic symptoms of appendicitis. Easy enough to remedy with a routine appendectomy – provided you aren’t a 36-day boat ride from the nearest hospital (airplanes were out of the question until spring, then months away). 


Faced with certain death if he did nothing, Rogozov decided to entrust himself to the care of the only doctor within thousands of miles – himself. Two of his colleagues (neither of whom had any medical training) served as his assistants – one to hold a mirror so Rogozov could see his own organs, and one standing by with a shot of adrenaline in case he passed out. Local anesthetic allowed him to cut through his abdominal wall, but he refused any additional painkillers so as to keep a clear head. 


Despite all of this, Rogozov made it work. As he put it in his diary: “I was scared too. But when I picked up the needle with the novocaine and gave myself the first injection, somehow I automatically switched into operating mode, and from that point on I didn’t notice anything else.” Rogozov made a full recovery and resumed his regular duties after two weeks. He went on to marry, father a child, and pursue a uneventful career as a general practitioner in St. Petersburg, where he died in 2000 at age 66.

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