The Husband and I started watching “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” amidst our 1,655-hour holiday binge-watching extravaganza — it’s a show that chronicles the tales of people who have found themselves in life-or-death situations, and obviously lived to share the gory, frostbitten details. I’m all ears, hanging off every word. Lost in the Amazon? Tell me more. Kayakers swept out to sea? Keep talking. Plane crashed in the Alaskan wilderness? More, please. Avalanches, bear attacks, you name it. It’s edge-of-your-couch kind of content.
It’s not just because the precipice of death is so enchanting (you know I’m spellbound by all things memento mori/remembering we must die), and it’s not just that I want to know what stupid decisions other people have made so that I don’t have to make those stupid decisions myself (like if I’m ever kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, for example. I now know what to do, like never go to Cambodia.). No, it’s more than that. The most compelling part of the show was what kept so many of these people alive. (Hint: it’s not water. WHY DOESN’T ANYONE EVER BRING ENOUGH WATER ON HIKES INTO THE DESERT?)
Why are you alive?
Reflecting back on their brink-of-death tales, many survivors confided they wanted to give up and die. These throw-in-the-towel moments were at the lowest points in their respective fights to stay alive: the pain of seven broken bones was too intense… the trail was too treacherous… the hyenas were too menacing… the dehydration was so severe that they couldn’t even muster up enough moisture for tears… you get the idea. Mortality-challenging stuff.
Just when they had lost energy, hope, and the will to live, many of them reported tuning into a reason to stay alive — as though a flicker of life emerged from deep within when they were about to succumb to the elements. Their purpose became clear. “But wait”, it whispered, “there’s more” (yet not in the infomercial kind of way).
One man was about to call it quits after floating out into the ocean (long story, just watch the show), but found the motivation to swim again after thinking of his parents and young niece, who he didn’t want to leave behind. This purpose literally fueled him to reach the shore and be rescued.
Another man crashed his plane in the middle of the remote African desert, and while contemplating death as his lips melted off (long story, just watch the show), he thought about his mission in life to save the African Painted Dogs from becoming extinct. Those endangered little dogs gave this man the will to hang on as he waited for his eventual rescue.
What does this mean for those of us not in survival mode?
Fortunately most of us aren’t clinging to life right now; we haven’t fallen from a cliff and we aren’t trapped in a canyon (and if you are, kudos to your Wi-Fi provider for being able to read this). But we do experience an assortment of crappy moments, compliments of the human condition: being let go from work, the return of your plantar fasciitis, losing Chuckles the family cat, being asked for divorce, the ending of My Octopus Teacher, existential angst, mounting debt, having the blahs… the list goes on and you know that it does.
Of course I’m not equating having an ingrown toenail with losing all 10 toes to severe frostbite (long story, just watch the show). But think about how having a reason to live helped these survivors to keep trucking along at the tough business of living. In our own non-treacherous day-to-day way of living, how connected are we to the reasons we have to stay on track, to stay committed, to give a shit, to care?
What is your African Painted Dog?
And how could knowing what your purpose is motivate you to do whatever you do with a little more gusto?
How could plugging into the renewable energy source of a reason to BE HERE help you live like you mean it?
Life is too precious to not feel like there’s a reason for us to be here. So imagine yourself in a catastrophic, death-defying moment — the most horrific one you can summon in your head, just for cinematic effect — and try your darndest to summon your reason to not give in to the hyenas or the dehydration. Is it your kids? The vintage car you’re painstakingly restoring? The potential you know you’re going to reach one day? The parrot you have waiting at home for you? The non-profit you’ve been planning to start?
It doesn’t matter what your reason and purpose for being alive is, it just matters that you have one and tune into it. You’ll use it unbeknownst to you on the average days and you just might need it to stay alive if you’re ever lost in the jungle.