Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
On future walks, Nyerges taught us how to make archery bows from willow branches, rub yucca leaves under water to produce a frothy green soap, identify edible seaweed on the beach, and make fire with soda and beer cans. For this latter feat, he turned an empty Coke can upside down, polished the surface, held tinder on a stick just above the concave bottom, and angled the reflective aluminum into the sun until it lit the tinder.
Even if I never had to use any of these skills in my lifetime, at least they’d make me a more competent dad—and my kids wouldn’t be peeing all over themselves in leaky tents, crying to their girlfriends about how they want to go home.
While talking with Forti, the filmmaker, on one of the walks, I asked him what kinds of movies he made. I wasn’t expecting much. At best, I figured maybe he’d directed something featuring a talking animal that excelled at a human sport. But it turned out that he was working on one of the most fascinating documentaries I’d ever heard of.
Forti said he’d spent the last seven years traveling around the world to see how different cultures responded to what he believed were the five major questions of existence:
1. What concerns you the most in life?
2. What does it mean to live a good, fulfilled life?
3. What’s the problem with mankind and what’s the solution? (Interestingly, Forti added, out of nearly a thousand interviews in over a hundred different cultures, no one replied that there was no problem with mankind.)
4. What happens after you die?
5. If there’s a God, what’s he like?
“I’m curious,” I asked after he explained each question. “When you talk to people who’ve been the target of a genocidal campaign or experienced the extremes of man’s inhumanity to man, do they still have faith in God and goodness?”
“I’ve spoken to people in Rwanda who survived the genocide. And I’ve spoken to people who’ve survived acts of God, like in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. And I’ve found that suffering usually draws people closer to God and gives them more faith. I think that the main driver in the human spirit is hope. Man can endure anything if he has hope.”
I was reminded of Man’s Search for Meaning, the book Viktor Frankl wrote about surviving Nazi concentration camps, and how he said that the most important survival skill to have was faith. As he put it, “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on.”
I wondered, as we walked on, what my aim in life was and why I was so determined to survive. What was it all for?
The answer came to me instantly: I wanted to survive because I wasn’t done living.
If our life span is a movie that begins with a tiny screaming neonate and ends with a shriveled, arthritic geriatric, then I don’t want to leave in the middle. There’s romance, horror, adventure, comedy, fantasy, family, and, most exciting of all, suspense still to come. And I want to see it all, until the very last credit rolls and the screen goes dark.
A lot of people are driven by the belief that they’re special, that they matter, that there is a reason why they’re here. And they’re sustained by their motivation to have this belief affirmed, which is why when someone challenges it, they want to take them down, whether through gossip, ostracism, aggression, or terrorism.
To me, that sounds like a lot of work and not much fun. All I believe is what I know for certain: that I’m alive, so I might as well make the most of it. And I’m driven by the simple fact that I hate leaving things unfinished.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly where I was on my survival quest. Everything was incomplete, and I was stressed. It had been over a year since I’d applied for my St. Kitts citizenship, and whenever I e-mailed Maxwell, his only response was “Be patient.”
But it was no longer possible to be patient: every morning I read the news, I saw more evidence of dark times coming. Everywhere I went, I heard of more billionaires like venture capitalist John Doerr predicting and preparing for an apocalypse. Every time I talked to Spencer and Mad Dog and the regulars on the Survivalist Boards, they found new flaws in my plans, holes in my training, contingencies I’d overlooked.
At times, it seemed there would be no end to the amount of things I needed to do to prepare. Learning to survive evidently meant learning every essential skill mankind had developed on its journey from Homo habilis to civilized humanity.
And I wasn’t opposed to doing that.