Survival, Real and Unreal
A tornado in Massachusetts killed several people recently, Tornadoes are rare in New England, and I joined the throngs of television spectators who witnessed the destruction and imagined what it must have been like to have just ten minutes to take cover. Everyone wonders the same thing—“What would I do?”, which ultimately leads to the question, “Would I survive?”
Not long before that, my book club chose to read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a novel that surrounds a struggle to survive. Despite the wealth of enthused reviews of the young adult book, the barbarism of preteens and teens chosen by lottery to battle in a carefully orchestrated match to the death wasn’t a topic, however fictional, into which I wanted to delve. I find it jarring when I encounter books on dark themes intended for those so young.
Yet there I was, a quick convert who joined the spectators of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games at some future point in time in which the United States is no more. In its stead lies the controlling capitol Panem, a cruel hub that makes sure every resident of every North American district, no matter how impoverished, has full access to television for the duration of the Games. Katniss Everdeen has offered herself up for the fight in place of her younger sister, Prim. Beyond the daily struggle to find enough food and water, there’s a reign of impossible cruelty in the arena—killer bees, choking smoke, bitter cold, a hail of fireballs—all imposed by the evil masterminds of Panem for the sake of better entertainment. But the cruelest aspect has got to be the mind game in which nothing and no one can be trusted, the epic jerking around by the powers that be that leaves the contestants in a simultaneously jacked up and exhausted state.
Katniss, who tells her story in a matter-of-fact voice, brings us with her into the arena, and soon we are rooting for her in the face of stupefying odds. She doesn’t relish the violence, but she’ll do what’s needed minute to minute to keep surviving. She uses her smarts; she thinks back on previous Hunger Games and has a sense of how playing to the crowd might serve her. It becomes clear that the desperate hunger of her childhood and the hunting and foraging skills it spawned work to her advantage.
The kicker for me was that before the protracted starvation, before the adrenaline-fueled struggle begins, Katniss and her unfortunate peers have to sit through the artifice of styling, costumes, and interviews to garner sponsorship, which can ultimately mean an airlift of life-saving medicine or nutrition at a crucial point in the match. There’s something uncomfortably familiar about the fierce competition for media attention and the elevation of commercial sponsorship to a crucial survival skill. Although even our most hard-core reality shows don’t go this far (yet), it’s not too much of a leap to imagine something of The Hunger Games’ horrific proportions being aired, albeit with all the right legal waivers in place.
And then of course, there’s love, which makes the crowds go wild. What happens to someone who is struggling to survive, who can’t allow herself to feel, when she is shown kindness and admiration? As focused as Katniss is on survival, she is as clueless about the affections of a boy as any girl her age might be. That’s the part that has the tweens and teens set eager to see the movie, but it’s also a reminder of how life can have a crazy way of going on even in the bleakest and most bizarre of times; that is, if you manage to live long enough to find that out.
The Hunger Games left me wondering if I would survive the Panem arena. Would I refuse to participate and die within seconds? Would I panic and be picked off? Where would I be without the hunting and foraging skills that benefited Katniss? And could I really entertain even remote thoughts of a relationship as I ran, limping and thickly camouflaged with mud, from arrows and fireballs?
Katniss might have suffered less if she’d been able to bone up with my next read, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. This nonfiction book explores qualities and actions most likely to save us in life-or-death situations. Journalist Ben Sherwood is also a novelist, so he’s got a knack for storytelling beyond simple reportage. What do people do wrong in crisis situations? They freeze up because their mind can’t catch up with the calamity; they make false assumptions, like “nobody survives plane crashes,” and give up before they start. Of course, there’s the percentage of non-survivors who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Often in plane crashes survivors and non-survivors are in side-by-side seats, just one of the chilling illustrations of the utter randomness of some tragic events.
The book covers it all—a lion attack, impossible falls from planes and high peaks, 9/11, war, the Holocaust—and there’s a lot of conflicting information. For example, some people say it was luck alone that determined whether they survived the Holocaust, others say it helped to be ruthless and self-centered. Still others, like survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Eli Wiesel, say that it helped to have someone else (in Wiesel’s case, his father) who needed your care.
Survivors Club doesn’t prescribe a specific formula, but it does examine what seems to help and what seems to push you closer to the brink in seemingly hopeless situations. One case study reminded me of The Hunger Games’ Katniss. Edie, who weighed forty pounds by the time she was liberated from Auschwitz at sixteen years old, described herself as “flowing” during her time at the concentration camp. In other words, when there’s no way to fight or flee, each day is a new exercise in adaptation and flexibility. Edie also felt that the loneliness and sadness of her childhood before her imprisonment helped her to develop strong inner resources, framing a difficult past as one with a true silver lining.
One thing Katniss didn’t do, unlike a host of those who lived in Survivors Club, was pray. There are more scientists out there than you might think studying nebulous concepts like prayer, miracles, and luck. Those who study prayer and survival make it clear that they’re not trying to prove or disprove God’s existence or power. They’re studying what habits and psychological leanings support survival. For example, those who attend religious services regularly live longer, because along with that attendance comes a tendency to have stronger support systems and a healthier lifestyle. Those helped by prayer most may be those who are most vulnerable, those who feel there’s nowhere else to turn. They are buoyed by the belief that an incredibly strong force has joined them in their fight.
It’s a similar process for people who consider themselves “lucky”—mindset begets actual change. Studies of luck find that those more attentive to new possibilities become more “lucky” simply because they can recognize opportunities whenever they arise. Bad luck may be driven by psychology, too. One woman with incredibly bad luck set out to study her own history and concluded that the stream of seemingly “random” accidents that befell her may have been tied to some deep-seated needs. With each episode of damage inflicted by “the world”, she received a bolus of nurturing from others, something she could have received with a lot less accompanying pain had she been prepared to ask for it in a straightforward way.
At first I didn’t get why a teenager might want to read The Hunger Games, probably because my nine-year-old is not too far from adolescence and I don’t like the thought of him having to contemplate a survival strategy. But adolescents today, newscasters reminded me recently, are shaped by the shadow of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars that followed that loomed over their formative years. My sister, who has young adult sons, informed me that there’s a food foraging movement afoot among their generation. Yes, it’s tied in to the greener, healthier lifestyle, but I think that this generation may feel a more pressing need to be prepared for just about any eventuality. And this impulse to study and learn, to be prepared, although it’s sad that it’s arisen from scary things, is one that will serve them well.
Whether in fiction or nonfiction, it’s satisfying when the protagonist finds a way to overcome the odds. When you relate to the character it can help you believe that you might fare as well. I took the “Survivor Profiler” at the Survivors Club website, and it turns out I am a Believer. Faith, hope, and love are my three top survivor tools. Although this sounds a lot wimpier than being a Connector, Thinker, or Fighter, apparently there is hope for me should a calamity strike. I am joined by a woman who gave birth in a tree during a raging flood and another who hung on after a plane crash with the singular goal of seeing her son again. It’s good to be in their company.
Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Her current blog is The Year I Said No, an adventure in making room for a richer life by learning to say no to things that get in the way. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. She can be reached through her website, Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers, or at khauswirth [at] sbcglobal.net.