by Lily Houston Smith
There was a morning in March 2020 when it dawned on me that things were about to get bad. I rose slowly out of bed and made a somnambulant descent from my fourth floor walkup, emerging into Sunset Park with only a vague, detached awareness of what I was doing. This sleepwalk, I now know, had been my survival instinct kicking in, compelling me toward the nearest grocery store. I arrived there, dumbstruck, like a boyfriend alone in a jewelry store, overwhelmed by the selection and the stakes. What would I need, I thought, when shit hit the fan?
Given all the years I’d spent consuming survival narratives—Station Eleven, The Walking Dead, Castaway, I Shouldn’t Be Alive, even Survivor—I figured I must have sponged up at least some post-apocalyptic street smarts. Not so. I returned home with several bags of dried beans and lentils, items which remain in my pantry to this day.
My failure of instinct was not, as many will recall, unique to me. Beans and lentils—as well as toilet paper, hand soap, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and other household necessities—were missing from shelves well into the spring. iPhone footage of panicked shoppers flooding into Costco at a jog lent civilization an air of imminent collapse. Bearing witness to it was chilling. Had none of us learned anything from The 100, from Lord of the Flies, from Lost? “If we can’t live together, we’re gonna die alone.”
It was with those early days of the pandemic in mind—the panic, the ineptitude—that I picked up a copy of How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances, by John Hudson. The book was first published the summer of 2019 and was rereleased earlier this year with the apt addendum, “Practical Advice for Coping During a Pandemic.” Hudson uses his experience in the field (he is the chief survival instructor for the British military and makes frequent appearances on the Discovery Channel) to deconstruct historical examples of seemingly superhuman feats of survival (or near survival—not all of Hudson’s subjects make it; one case study, for instance, is Amelia Earhart). His goal? A comprehensive yet simple guide to the human psyche under duress, illustrated with some of the most extreme, real-life examples that history has to offer. If we understand how we react to novel, adverse stimuli, he reasons, we can teach ourselves to be survivors.
Hudson’s rules are straightforward enough and most will seem familiar. Break daunting, unwieldy tasks down into manageable goals. Don’t be a Debbie Downer—meet challenges with realistic optimism. Eat healthy and exercise. (Why, why, why must everyone remind us about eating healthy and exercising?) It's all sound advice, to be sure, but I craved more explicit instruction, à la Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht’s The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, which my brother and I used to pore over with wonder as children. How do I treat a bullet wound, a leg fracture, perform a tracheotomy? What if I’m lost in the mountains, adrift at sea, stranded in the desert? How do I hot-wire a car if the MTA fails and I need to escape the city in a pinch? I wanted to know precisely what I needed to put in my bug out bag so that the next time the world seemed on the verge of collapse, I wouldn’t find myself in the canned goods section of the grocery store, mouth agape, wondering what might be useful if the water stopped running or if the power lines were cut.
How to Survive, I was disappointed to learn, is less about surviving societal collapse than it is about surviving society, period. The most gruesome of Hudson’s scenarios (like poor Roy: “Roy had lost his front teeth from trying to eat his own shoes”) are mined for useful advice about how to deal with difficult coworkers, prepare for high-stakes business meetings, and find purpose and meaning in a life overrun by petty frustrations and menial administrative tasks.
Take Chapter Three, which features the story of the unfortunate Lance Sijan, a U.S. Air Force pilot during the Vietnam war: When Sijan’s plane crashes over Laos, he finds himself suddenly in a dense jungle in hostile territory with no provisions and a bevy of serious-sounding injuries, including a badly fractured skull, several deep lacerations, and a hand and leg mangled past the point of use. Unyielding to his fate, Sijan crawls on his back for well over a month, dragging himself along with the force of his two working limbs. In a devastating turn of events, he is eventually captured, then tortured, escapes, then is captured again. “What I take away from this story most, after the extraordinary bravery and physical and mental resilience that Lance Sijan displayed,” Hudson writes after the harrowing conclusion, “is how determined we can be when our short-term targets and our most deeply held long-term goals are aligned.”
I was somewhat put off by the way Hudson interpreted the story. The enormity of Sijan’s suffering made the comparison to your average corporate employee feel jarring and perhaps a little tasteless. Sijan, Hudson speculates, was likely motivated by a strong sense of duty and by the promise of returning to his young bride-to-be. We too, he goes on, can accomplish great things when we reframe our menial office jobs so that we understand them as contributing to some larger purpose or value—some long-term career goal we’re working towards, our financial independence, or our ability to provide for loved ones. Suspicions mount, however, that most modern jobs are what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” (i.e. “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case"). If most jobs, as Graeber suggests, serve no larger purpose beyond generating income—income that is increasingly less likely to cover the basic costs of living—then Hudson’s advice starts to read as a delusion: not in the sense that his advice is delusional, but that his advice is to become delusional.
With Graeber’s bleak hypothesis in mind, the comparisons between Sijan and the rest of us yield some discomfiting similarities. Many of us are crawling along on the proverbial jungle floor, with many handicaps and few provisions. Many of us do confront the dismal Foucauldian realities of our day-to-day lives by performing strenuous mental gymnastics in order to justify our daily toiling as a meaningful, worthwhile way to spend the precious single life we are given.
As I neared the end of the book, I came to the sad realization that even after all the terrifying stories and the reasonable advice, I felt just as unprepared for the next shitstorm as I’d been for the last one. As it turned out, How to Survive wasn’t a survival guide at all; it was a self-help book.
Perhaps I was being too heavy-handed with the dystopian implications. After all, this was the particular idiom of the self-help genre: exemplary anecdotes needn’t bear resemblance to the reader’s lived experience, so long as they can be fashioned for their use. But I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Hudson’s advice felt redundant. I had spent the better part of my life learning to play nice with mean people, to juggle a hectic schedule, and to manage expectations about how glamorous and stress-free a lifestyle I could hope to craft for myself. What I needed was a good insurance policy against the end of the world.
But what good would that insurance policy do me in the end? When I voice my interest in doomsday prepping and survival narratives, people tend to respond with some version of the following sentiment: If the apocalypse comes, I’d rather just die. Whether it’s my optimism about the adaptability of our species, my competitive spirit, or my unrelenting fear of death, I can’t be sure. What I do know is that the scarier the world seems outside my window, the more I want to devour survival films, books, vlogs, TV series—and to soak up every last piece of life-saving advice I can.
Others have been flocking to survival narratives, too: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post all posted op-eds or listicles about the apocalypse novels that were propelling people through the early days of the pandemic. Is everyone treating these narratives as training, or is it simply entertainment? Why seek out fictional dystopias when the content of our lives is dismal enough?
Maybe it’s some form of morbid wish fulfillment. Perhaps there is some part of me that is disappointed at how mundane my struggles have been this past year: figuring out my taxes, cobbling together rent, scheduling doctor’s visits, quibbling with customer service reps. Perhaps the accumulation of all this low-level stress had me craving something more overt—narratives that I could imagine myself into, that played out the intensity of my emotions with violent shipwrecks, plane crashes, and Revenant-esque knife fights in early-nineteenth-century fur-trapping territory. If this was the real reason I’d picked up Hudson’s book, then it was an embarrassingly vain one: to take perverse pleasure in watching the suffering of others—an act of Aristotelian catharsis. (This is particularly embarrassing when I think what this pandemic has meant for so many people whose problems are infinitely more dire than navigating our labyrinthine tax system.) Whatever the reason, How to Survive did little to scratch the itch, something I could have predicted if I’d bothered to do my homework. (One of Hudson’s pieces of advice is to always do one’s homework.)
From its original release in 2019 to its re-release last month, How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances had a crucial change in subtitle. In 2019, the book was called How to Survive: Lessons for Everyday Life from the Extreme World. The title change was clever. (Publicists—like survival experts—must always be ready to adapt; and everyday life, as it turns out, can no longer be set in such stark opposition to extremeness.) It was also strikingly fortuitous—a tactical move that wound up a neat summation of the past twelve months’ mounting disillusionments. Our ideas about what constitutes a disaster—action-packed hypotheticals like total government collapse, nuclear war, some airborne variant of the Ebola virus making its way to JFK International—have been complicated beyond recognition. Slowly, grimly, we look around ourselves and wonder if the loneliness, the boredom, the constant barrage of bad news and psychological stress, is what it means to live through the apocalypse.
In the grocery store last March, the scenario I’d envisioned was one which necessitated both self-sufficiency and self-defense. I’d been following the news in Italy (the epicenter of coronavirus deaths at the time) and reasoned that—even in the worst case scenario—the lights would stay on, the grocery stores would stay open, and we would still be able, if necessary, to dial 9-1-1 for an EMT. But I had also seen Contagion and It Comes at Night and 28 Days Later, and wasn’t sure I could hack it if people started to turn on one another. Would my roommates and I be able to fight off intruders from the fire escape? Did we have enough provisions to last us if trips to the grocery store grew too perilous? If we bought a gun, would any of us know how to use it? My bag of pantry goods felt feeble in my hands.
Of course, I have not (yet) had to fight off intruders, and quick, masked grocery store trips remain as inconvenient and innocuous as ever—except in this icy weather, which renders the line outside Trader Joe’s in Downtown Brooklyn somewhat of a hazard. For many, though, this year has been traumatic in more tangible, obvious ways. When Hudson’s subtitle transformed from Lessons for Everyday Life from the Extreme World to Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances, it tacitly acknowledged that for decades, everyday life, even in a self-important first-world countries such as ours, has been extreme—a survival scenario no less daunting than a plane crash or capture by enemy forces. If this suggestion feels overblown, then here are some questions for you to ponder: How different is it, really, to be stranded without supplies in an unforgiving wilderness than it is to be evicted? How different is it to toil endlessly to build shelter and hunt for food, only to have your provisions washed away in a flash flood, than it is to work 40+ hours per week, only to be financially decimated by a visit to the emergency room? How different is it to be a soldier stranded in hostile territory than it is to be a young Black man navigating a city, when a police officer could, at any moment, perceive him as a threat?
The more I dwell on the barrage of existential threats we face, the more I wonder: What would a non-extreme existence look like? Is such a thing even possible? Or is the natural state of existence invariably Hobbesian—nasty, brutish, and short? If that’s the case, then How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances may be the most valuable book to hit the self-help section in years. Eat healthy and exercise, take deep breaths, invent some narrative about your various financial and housekeeping tasks so they don’t seem like such an inescapable, Sisyphean nightmare. Stop framing your struggles in terms of duty and necessary evil and really I should be grateful, and instead frame them in terms of the greatest feats of human will and resourcefulness on record. Perhaps then, you’ll stand a fighting chance.
Lily Houston Smith is a writer and audio producer based in Sunset Park. She co-edits Laid Off NYC’s Letters section. Get to know her better: @Lily_H_Smith.
*Thumbnail image: John Hudson, courtesy of the author