Saturday, July 14, 2007

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

Deep Survival was not the book I expected it to be. Instead it is better. I thought it would discuss survival techniques. The subtitle is Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. It discusses the qualities that people have who survive, the stages they go to, and their thought processes.

The first requirement is ruthless honesty, a rational assessment of the situation. In most of the cases in the book, that assessment would conclude that the situation is hopeless, yet the people decide to persevere. For example, Joe Simpson knows he is going to die. Yet he keeps crawling for seven miles with a broken leg that gives him excruciating pain. He travels toward the camp where he knows his companions must have already left thinking he is dead.

They are willing to try unusual solutions. One woman in a lifeboat on the ocean covers herself with seaweed to keep warm. Her companion turns up his nose at this. Guess who lives and who dies!

They derive pleasure in simple things like a graceful bird soaring over the ocean. They keep their sense of humor and laugh about their situation.

They make peace with their plight. One man, after drifting across the Atlantic on a lifeboat for 116 days, is rescued by a fishing boat in the Caribbean. He tells the fisherman to finish the fishing; he can wait to get to port.

Life and Death in Shanghai is my favorite book of all time. I reread it every couple of years. I read it after Deep Survival and saw how her story follows the explanations in the survival book.

Nien Cheng is arrested during the Cultural Revolution in China. She is kept in solitary confinement for seven years. Her health deteriorates. Food is scarce and it is cold.

She is finally allowed to go outside to a bleak courtyard. Yet in the corner struggling to exist she finds a flowering weed and marvels at its beauty.

She memorizes the thoughts of Chairman Mao so she can counter the statements of her interrogators. She goes through grueling interrogation sessions several times a week.

Survival is in the mind.

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