That’s the Spirit

The Power of Sur­vival Comes From Within

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Contents - By Peter Hof­s­tra Il­lus­tra­tions by Joe Oesterle

The Power of Sur­vival Comes From Within

When the prover­bial ex­cre­ment hits the fan, why might some­one who's con­sid­ered frag­ile or vul­ner­a­ble sur­vive, while the seem­ingly tougher one fails? Be­fore train­ing, gear, and prep, there’s some­thing more foun­da­tional to our sur­vival. That foun­da­tion is our hu­man spirit.

Nine-tenths of sur­vival is psy­cho­log­i­cal. If you don’t have the willpower to per­se­vere, all that great gear may as well be nonex­is­tent. In re­al­ity, sur­vival gear is meant to be an ad­junct to your sur­vival in­stincts. We’re here to help you hone those — lest you be in a sit­u­a­tion like the fol­low­ing one ex­pe­ri­enced by a young John F. Kennedy.

He led nine sur­vivors on a 3-mile swim to land­fall, while tow­ing an­other who was badly burned us­ing a strap be­tween his teeth. Over the next six days, he swam dozens of miles to seek help. He sliced up his feet on coral reefs, risk­ing death (or worse) by in­fec­tion, cur­rents, de­hy­dra­tion, cap­ture, or at­tacks from oceanic preda­tors.

Be­yond phys­i­cal and men­tal ex­haus­tion, JFK said he drew on a spir­i­tual strength, fed by his com­mand re­spon­si­bil­ity for his crew. Eleven of his 13-mem­ber crew sur­vived af­ter a Ja­panese de­stroyer sliced his boat, PT 109, in half.

War­riors, artists, and heal­ers have long rec­og­nized this power within our­selves. It’s de­scribed in meta­phoric, religious, eth­i­cal, and tran­scen­dent terms. At the cusp of life and death, the hu­man spirit can make or break us.

Hu­man Spirit

The spirit is the meta­phoric stone tablet of the pre­sup­po­si­tions of our be­ing, and it drives our deep­est emo­tional, eth­i­cal, so­ci­etal, men­tal, the­o­log­i­cal, and phys­i­cal re­sponses. One might say the spirit is the foun­da­tion from which we make choices. It in­cludes:

What drives us: our goals for this life­time

What is most im­por­tant to us: what we’re will­ing to die for Our con­vic­tions: what we’ll live for

Our code: what we’ll stand up for

Our sense of the tran­scen­dence: what we be­lieve about “the big out there”

When our spirit is trou­bled and things hap­pen that shake this foun­da­tion, it man­i­fests it­self in pow­er­ful emo­tions. For ex­am­ple, two po­lice of­fi­cers could be con­fronted with an armed sus­pect; iden­ti­cally trained, each of­fi­cer draws their weapon and stops the threat, killing the sus­pect. In the af­ter­math, one of­fi­cer pro­cesses the emo­tions, em­braces the lessons learned, and moves for­ward. The other of­fi­cer sup­presses the emo­tion and be­gins to have re­cur­ring stress, bad dreams, and is even­tu­ally di­ag­nosed with PTSD. This is deep emo­tional ter­ri­tory, life and death. If, in a sur­vival sit­u­a­tion, a life is taken and we come to terms with that choice, we can move for­ward. But if we get emo­tion­ally jacked up, we can suf­fer from an in­vis­i­ble in­jury that can make the rest of our life spi­ral out of con­trol.

If, in the face of our own death, our cer­tainty of life and sur­vival rises up from the spirit of our be­ing, we can do mirac­u­lous things. But if we be­lieve it is our time to die, that the odds are too great, then they are … and we will. So, we must con­di­tion our spirit be­fore the worst of the worst hap­pens. In a SHTF sit­u­a­tion we won’t have time for hes­i­ta­tion, so it’s im­por­tant we map out our emo­tional wiring so we don’t short cir­cuit when we’re un­der ex­treme stress.

The Im­por­tance of Spirit

The spirit is the place from which we’ll de­cide to kill, and the place from which we choose to sur­vive. Let’s look at an ex­am­ple of some­one put in this sit­u­a­tion and the re­solve they will­fully demon­strated.

In 2003 Aron Ral­ston fell and his arm be­came in­ex­tri­ca­bly lodged be­tween boul­ders in the canyon he was ex­plor­ing while hik­ing in Utah. With no ex­pec­ta­tion of res­cue, he cut off his own fore­arm us­ing the knifeblade in a cheap mul­ti­tool and hiked to safety. He demon­strated a will to sur­vive. At his spir­i­tual foun­da­tion, Aron Ral­ston’s de­sire to live out­weighed the cost of an arm, and the ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain of its re­moval.

The spir­i­tual strength to kill is harder to il­lus­trate. Imag­ine a Marine Corps sniper look­ing down his scope at a 12-year-old headed for his bud­dies with a bomb strapped to her body. Imag­ine if, af­ter SHTF, we were look­ing through the scope and our fam­i­lies were at risk. There’s a lot to work through in or­der to be OK with tak­ing a life that may jeop­ar­dize our loved ones.

When these sit­u­a­tions rear their ugly heads, there won't be time for these ques­tions. Will we kill or be killed and how will we live with the con­se­quences?

We live in a demo­cratic repub­lic that af­fords due process, and other pro­tec­tions pro­vided by the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion and the Bill of Rights. These are the con­di­tions we op­er­ate un­der in a sta­ble Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. The spirit has adapted to these norms.

Here are two ex­er­cises to pre­pare: the first is called pre­flec­tion, a vi­su­al­iza­tion ex­er­cise of eth­i­cal con­se­quences.

The sec­ond is called emo­tional self-aid. Spir­i­tual trauma, moral in­jury, and trau­matic stress dis­or­ders man­i­fest with emo­tional out­bursts. This is an ex­er­cise to deal with those emo­tional flare-ups in­stead of sup­press­ing them.


One could call this ex­er­cise spir­i­tual stress inoc­u­la­tion. It plays out the eth­i­cal con­se­quences of a life-and-death de­ci­sion be­fore be­ing faced with this kind of re­al­ity. It pre­pares the spirit for what fol­lows such an event.

Out­line a mock sce­nario where you have to kill some­one to pro­tect your­self or oth­ers. Write it in sort of a class­room as­sign­ment for­mat as a log­i­cal ex­er­cise.

Ex­am­ple: You’re forced to shoot a poacher who is steal­ing a deer on land you’d planned to use to feed your fam­ily. Choose a quiet time where you can fo­cus your thoughts and re­call this sce­nario with a fo­cus on what you may feel in that sit­u­a­tion, mo­ment by mo­ment.

Visu­al­ize the sce­nario step-by-step, im­part­ing as much real­ism as pos­si­ble. The key is to feel the re­al­ity as if you’re watch­ing it un­fold. Make the peo­ple au­then­tic, not like comic book vil­lains. Be vivid in your de­scrip­tion. What do peo­ple look like? What time of day is it? Where are you liv­ing? What are the thoughts rac­ing through your head as you make this de­ci­sion? Write it as if you’re a nov­el­ist.

Imag­ine the af­ter­math: the shoot­ing, the body, the sur­round­ings, how your fam­ily might re­act. Imag­ine it un­til you feel it, the anger that forced you to pull the trig­ger, or the an­guish that you took a life, or the sheer dis­be­lief — what­ever comes to your heart and mind. The in­tent is to shake your spir­i­tual foun­da­tion, to make your­self painfully un­com­fort­able with what hap­pened.

Now back off the im­age and work through the feel­ings. What did it feel like? Could you do it? Would you do it again? Write down the re­sults, date them, and file it.

Run the ex­er­cise sev­eral times, leav­ing days or weeks be­tween. Af­ter four or five rep­e­ti­tions of this ex­er­cise, go back and see the progress that has been made.

Pre-flec­tion­ing the sce­nario aligns spir­i­tual is­sues of what we should do and what we will do. This will be the time to un­cover and, as nec­es­sary, change the deep truths of what we be­lieve and are will­ing to do.

Emo­tional Self-Aid

Pain, in­jury, death — and life, in gen­eral — can raise un­fa­mil­iar or un­de­sired emo­tions as the spirit adapts to new cir­cum­stances. When we shove those emo­tions into a box, it’s in­evitable that the con­tents of that box will even­tu­ally per­me­ate other as­pects of our life.

While in sem­i­nary, I trav­eled to Is­rael for a short-term study. Dur­ing that time, we wit­nessed a protest of the re­cent

death of a young Pales­tinian man tak­ing place at the Church of the Na­tiv­ity. This protest was sur­rounded by the Is­raeli mil­i­tary. When a young Pales­tinian woman thanked us for be­ing there, be­cause the Is­raelis were “less likely” to fire with Amer­i­can tourists present, it af­fected me much more deeply than I re­al­ized at the mo­ment. In that in­stant, I sim­ply packed all my con­flict­ing emo­tions into a box and tried to leave the area as quickly as pos­si­ble. It wasn’t un­til we re­turned home that the shame of what might have been seeped into my con­scious­ness.

Sur­vival in a SHTF sit­u­a­tion will leave us tired and dis­tracted enough. Adding the bur­den of emo­tional tur­moil on top of a dis­as­ter sce­nario is nearly guar­an­teed to over­whelm. Train­ing our cop­ing mech­a­nisms ahead of time will lessen the blow of any cir­cum­stance we might not have pre­pared for. Un­like go­ing to the range, one doesn’t sim­ply sit and prac­tice anger. This ex­er­cise is prac­ticed in real life.

Pre­pare a list of emo­tional iden­ti­fiers. An easy sys­tem is “glad, sad, mad, bad, and afraid.” Name the emo­tions as they come to mind as you walk through a va­ri­ety of events in your mem­ory that span the emo­tional spec­trum. It’ll be very clunky at first.

Ex­pand and adapt your own vo­cab­u­lary through real-life ex­pe­ri­ence. For ex­am­ple, your kid crashes and to­tals your new pickup — mad doesn’t be­gin to de­scribe it. Build the vo­cab­u­lary. The more de­scrip­tive or col­or­ful the lan­guage, the more it’ll make sense to you.

Be aware of in­vol­un­tary phys­i­cal re­ac­tions. El­e­vated heart rate, jit­ters, sweat­ing, shal­low breath­ing, etc. — maybe anger trig­gers a freeze be­cause you fear lash­ing out. When these phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions of emo­tion hap­pen, calm can be achieved with tac­ti­cal breath­ing. Lt. Col. David Gross­man ex­plains this process in his lec­tures to law en­force­ment of­fi­cers — us­ing both our vol­un­tary and in­vol­un­tary phys­i­cal re­ac­tions as han­dles to re­gain self-con­trol.

Tac­ti­cal breath­ing (breath­ing in, hold­ing, breath­ing out each for a count of four) will calm the phys­i­cal pro­cesses and even­tu­ally ease those emo­tional trig­gers. As you work it through, cat­a­logue the phys­i­cal re­ac­tions. Learn to rec­og­nize when yours are com­ing to the sur­face.

Ul­ti­mately, this is an ex­er­cise in self-aware­ness. Prac­ticed in the rel­a­tive safety of ev­ery­day life, it pro­vides tools to work through the po­ten­tially over­whelm­ing emo­tions that’ll come when the world is turned up­side down.

Spir­i­tual For­ti­tude

There’s a sign in a law en­force­ment train­ing fa­cil­ity that says, “In times of trou­ble, we do not rise to the oc­ca­sion, but fall back to our level of train­ing.” This in­cludes the hu­man spirit. It’s one thing to claim we would kill to pro­tect our fam­i­lies. It’s quite an­other to ac­tu­ally do so. It’s one thing to de­clare that if caught in a bear trap, we’d hack off a leg to sur­vive. It’s quite an­other to have the spir­i­tual power to ac­tu­ally cut into your own flesh if the need calls for it.

Most of the time, the hu­man spirit doesn’t man­i­fest it­self. Our con­scious mind is ad­e­quate to deal with the choices of nor­mal life. When we go off the cliff of proper be­hav­ior to be­hav­ior to con­tem­plate what’s worth dy­ing for and what’s worth killing for, the spir­i­tual trauma will man­i­fest as pow­er­ful emo­tions.

In that mo­ment, when we have to de­cide to live rather than die, no mat­ter how grim the odds may be that choice is a spir­i­tual one. From the spirit flows a well­spring of strength when all else has failed. Spir­i­tual strength al­lows us to tran­scend lim­i­ta­tions.

As de­picted in the film 127 Hours, your spirit will de­ter­mine your will­ing­ness to go to ex­treme mea­sures to sur­vive. If you were in the same sit­u­a­tion, could you bring your­self to am­pu­tate your own arm? If not, what would it take for you to reach that...

Much like sol­diers ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing war, you’ll be forced to make split­sec­ond, life­sav­ing de­ci­sions in a grid-down en­vi­ron­ment. Pre­par­ing psy­cho­log­i­cally for emo­tions you might face dur­ing TEOTWAWKI is key to sur­vival.

Your brain only works as far as the words you have to de­scribe what’s in it. Writ­ing down your emo­tions as you ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent events helps you han­dle dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ences and iden­tify your emo­tions bet­ter.

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