The Special Forces Guide to Surviving Christmas

The Special Forces Guide to Surviving Christmas December 24, 2014

Does “First they tell you not to panic, and then they try to drown you,” sound like Christmas with your family? If so, this post is for you.

“First they tell you not to panic, and then they try to drown you,” explains author Ben Sherwood in his fantastic book The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, about how the military teaches Marine Corps Aviation Survival Training, aka “the art and craft of escaping from crashing jets and sinking helicopters”.

If a crashing jet and/or sinking helicopter sounds like either A) Christmas with your family and/or B) How you feel about attending a mandatory Christmas Eve service, you need to read this book.

But since you probably have about two minutes before the crashing/sinking/drowning begins (if it hasn’t already!), allow me to adapt the Marine Corps Aviation Survival Training* to help you get through the next 48 hours.

First, let’s imagine you are flying the helicopter of your Dignity above an ocean of familial discord. There may or may not be armed soldiers siblings shooting shouting at you. There may or may not be parental/pastoral bombs exploding around you. You may or may not be hopelessly motion sick and really, really wishing you had Tom Cruise in Live Die Repeat as a co-pilot (or maybe that’s just me?)

Whatever is or isn’t happening: your mission is simply this: SURVIVE.

And let’s define SURVIVE, shall we? SURVIVE doesn’t mean you don’t feel icky and ugly and want to hide in an f-ing closet for an hour (You probably will, and that’s okay.) But SURVIVE does mean that you will not be the one acting mean. You will maintain healthy boundaries. You will be firm, fair and friendly.

SURVIVE means you will maintain the dignity and mental stability you possess the other 364 days of the year, and you will arrive safely at tomorrow without 1) Checking into the hospital or 2) Committing a felony.

So. When you’re engines fail, your propellers fall off, your Mom starts thumping the Bible on your head and your helicopter plummets down, down, down far too quickly—you will need:

Situational Awareness: If you don’t know what’s going on in your mind, there’s no way to anticipate danger. When we’re just trying to get through dinner, we often ignore the warning signs in our minds—jumping straight from trigger to reaction without stopping to think, like, Rational Adult Thoughts. Turn up the volume in your mind, even if that means excusing yourself to the bathroom and whisper-yelling Rational Adult Thoughts at yourself in the mirror.

The Will to Live: [ If Christmas actually brings your Will to Live into question–get thee away from thy family—NOW. (See: Cabo).] Modification: The Will to Keep Your Dignity Intact. If you lose your dignity, you aren’t going to survive until 8pm…let alone tomorrow. Listen, I know your sister can turn you into the very worst version of you with one nasty look, but let Dignity! Be your battle cry, even if you have to bite your tongue ‘til it bleeds.

Okay. So you’re aware of what’s going on your head, and you’ve resolved to maintain your dignity, but your goddam helicopter is still crashing into the ocean at a gazillion miles an hour. When impact is imminent:

Maintain Your Reference Point. According to Sherwood, maintaining your reference point in chaotic situations means “identifying and holding on to something that will help you stay oriented no matter how many times you flip over or get banged in the head. If you keep your point of reference, you will never get lost or confused and will always find a way out.”

In the simulated crash test, he chooses to focus on the helicopter’s door handle. Door handles don’t work for me, but I like the visual of focusing hard on something concrete you can mentally grab and hold onto, HARD.

Maybe this is counting to ten, or focusing on your breath, a mantra or a prayer. It could be an actual rock in your pocket that you squeeze until your gingers are white or looking at the face of a child you want to be a good example for…it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is something you can focus on that will orient you.

Wait For the Sudden and Violent Motion to Stop. You can’t diagnose a problem, let alone come up with a solution, when you feel like you’re being swirled around in a blender. The tumult and chaos and flashing lights and crazy sensations are what make us forget our dignity and Rational Adult Thoughts. So wait for the worst to end (as it inevitably will-becauseeven misfortune gets tired and needs a break”); wait for the whirling craziness to stop; wait and hold hard to that reference point.

“Psychologists have a clunky term for this: active passiveness. It means recognizing when to stop and when to go. In a critical sense, doing nothing can mean doing something. Inaction can be action, and embracing this paradox can save your life.”

….or your holiday sanity.

And one last Survival Tip:

Never drink urine and never, ever drink seawater. Friends, if you are doing either of these things, I recommend going to Cabo instead of Mom’s for Christmas next year (unless you really have a thing for seawater– in which case, go to the desert). Modification: Never drink so much that your inner Mean Girl/Frat Boy comes out. And, no matter how badly you want to never, EVER drink the moonshine Uncle Jack made it in his bathtub.

*All quotes are from the The Survivor’s Club Introduction. It’s a really, really great book.

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