Survival: The Mind-set

Reading Gladius Maximus’ excellent essay, “Gimme A Knife”, brought to the fore some thoughts on this subject of survival.  Since getting hooked on my Kindle a few years back, I frequently download obscure free books on a range of topics(mostly history, but some literature and the occasional odd title that catches my fancy), in addition to the many I buy.    To save you the inconvenience, I’ll add this off-topic comment: don’t download free public domain books from Barnes and Noble.  The formatting is awful and each one starts with a message from Google, stating each book has been carefully scanned to preserve it.  How each page ends up with many words containing symbols in lieu of letters, I know not, but save yourself the aggravation of reading this mess.  Amazon’s public domain books far surpass Barnes and Noble’s.

Now, back to the topic, a few months ago,  I read my freebie,  Willa Cather’s, My Antonia  (available free here or here).  This novel exemplifies the “put one’s hand to the plough” mentality that separates those who persevere and thrive and those who prefer to wallow in misery.  The young male main character, Jim Burden, narrates the story of moving to early 20th century Nebraska to live with his grandparents, who were early homesteaders.  Jim becomes fascinated with neighboring homesteaders, the Shimerdas,  a family of Bohemian immigrants.  Throughout the story, Jack’s grandmother exemplifies the indomitable American spirit and she’s a testament to planning not just to survive, but to live as comfortably as possible in an unforgiving environment.  The Shimerdas, city-dwellers in their home country, fail to take responsibility for their own survival, necessitating good neighbors to prevent their demise.  In one scene the grandmother packs a hamper to take to the Shimerdas, she offers this line:

‘Now, Jake,’ grandmother was saying, ‘if you can find that old rooster that got his comb froze, just give his neck a twist, and we’ll take him along. There’s no good reason why Mrs. Shimerda couldn’t have got hens from her neighbours last fall and had a hen-house going by now. I reckon she was confused and didn’t know where to begin. I’ve come strange to a new country myself, but I never forgot hens are a good thing to have, no matter what you don’t have.”

Despite the Shimerdas family’s hardships and suffering caused by their parents lack of survival skills, Antonia Shimerda and her siblings (thanks to neighbors and others in their rural Nebraska community), get on the path toward successfully homesteading and thriving in America.

I’ve noticed this dichotomy in how various regions of the country respond to natural disasters too.  In the heartland, entire towns were swept away by flooding, yet you saw neighbors helping neighbors and I recall one reporter interviewing a young man, who was  helping build a sandbag barricade.  This young man, nonchalantly told the reporter that his family’s home had already been washed away one town upriver, so there was nothing they could do about that.   He told the reporter they decided to come and try and help their neighbors save their homes.  Yet, when natural disasters strike urban areas, the scene quickly turns into political posturing about the federal response, looting concerns, and a general spectacle of people who don’t seem well equipped to survive.  To be clear this isn’t a racist comment, I’ve observed this in Long Island, New Orleans, LA, and other urban areas and I think the difference is in the sense of community that still flickers in rural America,  that no longer burns in urban areas.

During Hurricane Katrina, GEN Russell Honore became one of the most prominent faces of Katrina.  After Hurricane Katrina he wrote a book, aptly titled, “Survival: How A Culture Of  Preparedness Can Save You And Your Family From Disasters” (here).  I bought the book, thinking my husband might want to read it, because he worked for GEN Honore, earlier in their careers and my husband came home almost daily with stories (many very amusing).

When I read the first few pages, I decided to read the whole book.  His book offers up many excellent remedies for improving our state and federal response to disasters, but the main take away he pushes to the forefront is that you are the main  driver of you and your own family’s survival.  He describes his rural upbringing working on his father’s farm and later working for pay for a  neighboring dairy farmer , Grover Chustz.   He describes Chustz as lacking formal education, but being highly creative, innovative and most of all striving to make sure everything on his farm was done well.  Honore describes how Chustz  taught him a fundamental lesson that carried him through a highly successful military career.  Chustz pulled out a single wooden match and had Honore break it.  Next,  he pulled out two matches,  put them together and had him break them, which proved harder to do.  Then he pulled out four matches and Honore couldn’t break them.  He explained  to Honore that’s the power of a team.   I believe that’s the challenge we face in America –  rebuilding the power of the team.  With the rise of the Tea party movement, the phrase, “Take Back America” took flight, but perhaps we ought to readjust that to rebuilding the American team.

Reality TV garbage, like Doomsday Preppers and the fixation on extreme survival skills, like Bear Grylls, marginalize  the seriousness of learning practical steps to take to be prepared.  In fact, stockpiling and building a fortress probably won’t increase your odds of survival anyway. The surest way to survive lies in building that team, where individual strengths and skills can lead to  innovation, creative-brainstorming and more ideas on how to tackle our problems, even in the most dire situation.  If you are stranded by rising water, calling Washington won’t help you, but calling your neighbors, who can pool resources sure might.

In a previous post, I mentioned federalism as the key to revitalizing America, in hopes of pulling back on some of the federal encroachment on states’ rights.  And the vital building blocks to stronger states lies in rebuilding our sense of community.  This isn’t about celebrity-driven national movements or the Glenn Beck type extravaganzas.  It’s about concerned citizens within communities sharing concerns,  ideas, pooling resources and taking charge of their own survival.  Considering the fractured nature of not only American communities, but more importantly American families, this team-building effort can’t be done overnight.  In fact, it could take years, but without it, we will keep making those  3 am calls to Washington and realize, no one is at home.


Filed under American Character, American History, Food for Thought

6 responses to “Survival: The Mind-set

  1. amccaig

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this subject. One of the serious maladies of our American culture is our lack of independent spirit. Too often, we lack the physical and moral courage to meet the challenges we face. It is too easy to either ignore the issues or throw money at a problem. That pioneer spirit, independence, single-minded effort to not only get by but to excel is too often missing in our culture. Suffering isn’t much fun and our human nature is to avoid it. Frankly, I don’t like to suffer, but I don’t know of any other way to grow either mentally, physically or spiritually. Suffering doesn’t have to nearly kill us to be effective, either. For instance, long distance running is a form of suffering (if you’ve ever done any of it) yet the results are very good in terms of strength, stamina, cardio-fitness and overall health. It takes physical and moral courage to run a 20 K race, too. It also takes moral courage to stand on principle; to be self-sufficient; to be self-supporting; to be strong in the face of challenges. Too often, post-modern Americans are unable to do that; and, I’ve seen it not only among the young, liberal left, but also in the older, established conservatives. Ignore it, throw money at it; it will all go away. Well, it won’t, and frankly Holly, that is not a pleasant thing. At any rate, thanks for posting this and I hope to see more like it. By the way, you may want to take a look at an aricle by LTC (Ret.) Dave Grossman, called “On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs.” Fits right in with this theme.

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