Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part V. RESCUE
What I worry about,” Leonard Cohen said as we sat in the spartan living room of his Los Angeles apartment, “is that the spirit will die before the country dies.”
His words were pithy and poignant, like those of his songs.
Though some turn to politicians, priests, or parents when seeking answers to questions about the world, I’d always turned to music. And, more than anyone, Leonard Cohen was politician, priest, and parent to me. The beauty of his words was one of the things that inspired me to write.
A mutual friend, a record executive named David, had taken me to see him after hearing me talk about survival. He thought I’d find a kindred spirit in Cohen. As the economy imploded and the 2008 elections neared, it seemed like most Americans were becoming kindred spirits in anxiety. Except David.
Soft-spoken and reclusive, David spent more time reading spiritual books than newspapers. Unlike Cohen and I, who fell into a class of people known as negativity avoiders, he was a positivity embracer.
“But what about the protests against the Iraq war?” David challenged as we sat in Cohen’s living room. “That was the first time anyone protested a war before it happened. Maybe that’s a good sign of a consciousness awakening.”
“There are forces of evil in this world that are too great,” Cohen responded. His wrinkles were deep-set under gray hair, framing hazel eyes that shone with the vigor of a twenty-year-old student and the intelligence of a hundred-year-old monk. “The war was an inevitability.”
He took an unhurried sip of tea. As for the protests, he continued, “You become what you resist.”
Cohen stood up to put a pot of bean soup on the stove. He was seventy-three, and his manager had recently been convicted of stealing most of his retirement fund, leaving him nearly broke and mired in lawsuits.
Just miles to the south of him, Cohen said when he returned to the living room, were some of the most dangerous gangs in L. A. And when their anger reached critical mass, he worried that they would spill out of their neighborhoods, and the police would be too busy trying to protect their own families to stop them from terrorizing the city.
“My fear,” he concluded, “is the social contract breaking down.”
“The snap?” I asked.
“Yes, the snap.” And right then, I knew he was one of us: a Fliesian.
I told Cohen about the preparations I’d made and the survival skills I’d learned. “Look at me,” he said after I finished. “I’m not made to survive. I could learn to shoot guns, but I don’t have any experience in the street. I’m not a fighter.”
“What about love?” David interrupted. “You don’t have to hide from violence or fight against violence. You can embody love.” I envy positivity embracers for the ease with which they glide through life. They die happy dreaming of heaven. We die miserable worrying about hell.
Cohen’s answer came quickly, as if he’d already come up with it decades before, perhaps when he was playing Vietnam War protest concerts. “That’s what the enemy wants, because then it’s easier for them to conquer you. The people who survive persecution do so because they are strong.”
He then quoted a Zen aphorism: “The lotus that blooms in the water withers when it comes near to fire. Yet the lotus that blooms from the midst of flames becomes all the more beautiful and fragrant the nearer the fire rages.”
I had bloomed in the water, as had most Americans raised in the late 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Consequently, as Cohen put it, we were weak. That’s why the events of the last few years had sent me into such a panic. Thanks to Tracker School, Gunsite, and Krav Maga, I was getting stronger. But if I truly wanted the ability to survive, I needed to expose myself to the heat, to harden myself, so I’d be inoculated when the flames started licking my heels.
Perhaps the main reason I was even on this journey was that I didn’t want to take a relatively sheltered life for granted. As a teenager, I’d been subjected to so many books, classes, movies, and comic books about sex and violence that it seemed strange neither of those two things had happened to me yet. Eventually, after a lot of work and anticipation, sex came into my life. But what about violence? Would I be ready for that eventuality? Because, unlike sex, I might only get one chance to face it.
When I tuned back into the conversation, Cohen was discussing a book he’d read about Auschwitz. Some scholars, he was saying, wonder why the Jews didn’t rush forward and try to overpower the handful of machine gunners about to shoot them when they were being led to mass graves.
“Because they knew that, even if they succeeded, they couldn’t escape?” I replied, attempting to contribute.
“It’s because that’s not what they wanted to do,” Cohen replied. “They wanted to reflect on their life and prepare to die.” He paused and slowly picked up his teacup. “And that’s what I’m doing. Preparing to die.”
“How does one prepare for that?” I asked.
Cohen never answered. He stood up to check on his bean soup, then led us to his office to play a song he’d recently written. It was a long list of horrible things that are going to happen, followed by the plea, “Tell me you still love me.”
It was unclear whether he was pleading with a woman or with God.
I drove home from Cohen’s house feeling more anxiety than I had in a long time. I couldn’t get his lotus metaphor out of my head. It pointed to a gaping hole in my survivalist training. Except for being mugged twice, I’d never been through any real disaster, trauma, or emergency. And outside of my Oklahoma City bathroom experience, I’d never had to run or fight or talk or struggle to save my life. I’d never even seen a dead body before. So if I was under stress and my life was in danger, I had no idea whether I’d be able to effectively use the skills I’d learned—or if I’d just panic, freeze, and mess my pants.
I spent the next week thinking about ways to expose myself to stress and danger, considering everything from paintball (not real enough and ultimately harmless) to the military (too real and possibly fatal) to injecting myself with an EpiPen to see if I could handle the adrenaline rush.
“Maybe you should try jumping in front of a train and then jumping away right before it hits you,” Katie suggested when I asked for ideas. “Or what if you walked through Compton without your gun, and you were wearing a shirt that said ‘Bloods’ on it? That would be high-stress.”
“Do you really want me to do those things?” I asked.
“No, I don’t. Because then you’re going to die.”
Low on ideas, I decided to turn to the experts I’d met for advice.
“The best cure for stress is repeated exposure,” Kelly Alwood from urban evasion class suggested when I called. Unlike me, Alwood had a father who was a Green Beret and had been teaching him to toughen up since he was six years old. My father had mostly taught me about jazz.
“So what do you do if you have no exposure, outside of the regular stresses of life?”
“I’m taking an EMT class now. It’s the best emergency medical training you can get. And it’s great for stress inoculation, because as part of the class, you have to ride in ambulances and respond to 911 calls.”
My heart raced as he spoke. There were people in Los Angeles who put themselves in the face of danger every day: firemen, police officers, paramedics, search-and-rescue teams. I needed to seek them out and join their ranks.
Not only would I get the experience I was looking for, not only would I get a uniform and badge that would get me past roadblocks when escaping the city, not only would I get keys to the back fire roads, not only would I be exposed to life-and-death situations, but I’d have the best, strongest network available: the system itself.
Maybe Leonard Cohen was right. You become what you resist.