Thirty years ago, Steven Callahan was out alone in his sailboat, the Napoleon Solo, on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately his voyage didn’t actually go across the ocean but instead went horribly wrong when his boat struck an unknown object in a storm (presumably a whale) and sank. The 29 year old Callahan managed to retrieve some supplies from his sinking boat including solar stills, a small amount of food, navigational charts, flares, and a speargun. But with meager supplies, no way to contact anyone, and being located outside of any major shipping channels, his chances of survival were slim … at best.
When he was rescued 76 days later off the coast of Guadalupe by fishermen who noticed the birds flying around his raft, he was still alive. He had lost one third of his body weight and was covered in saltwater sores but he was alive. How? He determined that if he were to survive this ordeal, it would be entirely up to his ingenuity and his personal determination to NOT be defeated by his circumstances. His reasoning was that “compared to what others have been through, I’m fortunate.” He later said in an interview, “I [told] myself I could handle it and said these things over and over, building up fortitude …”
His survival account was profiled in the Discovery Channel/Animal Plannet series, I Shouldn’t Be Alive, and in his own book Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea. How he did it is simply fascinating. He managed to catch fish, used his solar still to make fresh water from evaporated sea water, captured rain water, exercised, built up food and water supplies for future use, made repairs to his raft, and prioritized each and every problem he encountered.
But the main thing that struck me was how he kept his wits even when all hope seemed lost. His best survival tool was himself and his attitude. Even when there was no real point in continuing his life and death struggle, he never quit. At one point his life raft was somehow punctured and though he battled with his weakened body to repair it, the thing was still losing air – but he never gave up. Working the air pump was wearing him out physically. He was starving and dangerously dehydrated since the solar stills could only produce about a pint of water each day. He was completely exhausted and giving up would have made sense and been quite understandable.
What is it that keeps people going in these types of circumstances? Some people DO give up but others flip a switch in their minds that gives them the courage, fortitude and inner strength to keep going. Many people in similarly desperate circumstances give up on life or just go crazy. Something the survivors do with their thoughts helps them find the guts to carry on in spite of overwhelming odds.
Steven Callahan’s words struck a chord with me and I’ve intentionally remembered them as something important. They reminded me of something I came up with several years ago when I was feeling down. For a few days it seemed like nothing I did worked and everything was going wrong. Checks had bounced, my taxes were due, and my wife and I were arguing over something trivial. That’s when I noticed a co-worker named Chris who drove a bombed (really bombed) out pickup, lived in a rented and dirty house trailer, had two small kids whose diapers needed to be changed about 4 hours ago, and whose wife with a screechy voice was always nagging him about money. It struck me that no matter how bad I thought MY circumstances were, HE would trade places with me in an instant. Not only him but probably several billion other people would gladly trade places with me as well … problems and all.
When nothing seems to be going my way or my own goals seem unreachable or when my problems seem far too big to handle, I use what Steven and Chris have taught me to help bring me back to my senses. It helps me put things, even what I would call bad things, into perspective.
Always remember: your circumstances are only bad compared to something better. But others have things much worse than you and others have survived much more difficult circumstances. I’ve read enough history to know you and I are fortunate and blessed to live where we live and live in the time period we live no matter how bad our lives and circumstances seem when compared to our fantasies of a “perfect” life. It’s a sound way to think.
So here, coming to us from the razor sharp edge of life and death, are words and ideas that can give us personal strength and courage. Whatever you’re going through, tell yourself you can handle it, that no matter how bad you think you have it, others would trade places with you instantly and compared to what others have been through, you’re fortunate. Choose to tell yourself these things over and over, and it will help you get through the rough spots with a little more grace … a little more courage … and a little more strength.
You CAN handle it. You are stronger than you think. And your life is a sweet blessing compared to what other people around the world are experiencing.