Being Strong to Be Useful

NoLifeguardThis post has been on my mind for quite a while. I initially wanted to post something on this topic back in early December 2012, when the headlines in the US were dominated by the photographic evidence of a man pushed onto the New York subway tracks, staring down the train that would hit and kill him. It felt a little too raw to post right away, and then the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary in Newton, CT happened…and it just sorta slipped away in the flood of weary sadness at all of it.

But now, fresh off my MovNat Costa Rica retreat and a little more than a week after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, it’s all come back to me again. But first, a little history lesson.

MovNat founder Erwan Le Corre is an astute student of history. One of MovNat’s direct predecessors (and forefather of Parkour) is Georges Hébert, who I’ve quoted in the title of this post. As a French naval officer stationed off the coast of Martinique in 1902, he witnessed a volcanic eruption that wiped out the town of St. Pierre. He and his fellow shipmen rescued some 700 people in the chaos. When Hébert returned to France, he scanned the crowds of people and came to the sad realization that very few could save themselves if they had to. In response, he developed his “Natural Method”:

The final goal of physical education is to make strong beings. In the purely physical sense, the Natural Method promotes the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move on all fours, to climb, to keep balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim.

Sadly, when I scan a crowd of people today, I see the same problems Hébert saw over a hundred years ago. I can only imagine his shock at how much worse it is today.

HelicopterRescueWe’re even softer than we were then, especially here in the US where we’re not accustomed to bombs going off in our neighborhoods or having to fend for ourselves outdoors. Most of us don’t expect to run into trouble much, and when we do, we’re happy to outsource it to someone else, whether it’s hospital staff or emergency rescue personnel. But sometimes you’re the first responder or sometimes it’s someone you love. Sometimes, it might be yourself and you have only seconds to hoist yourself off the subway tracks before a train bears down on you.

I can think of several events where Hébert’s skills would’ve come in handy. 9/11. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, wherein one of the most famous survivors to emerge from that was a model who held onto a tree for eight hours. Any run-of-the-mill earthquake, tornado, or fire. A friend of mine’s 9-year-old daughter fell through the ice on a frozen lake, and my friend was only able to make it about 50 feet up the hill to the cabin with her daughter in her arms before tiring out.

At the retreat, we practiced a few things. We studied MovNat’s combative techniques, designed to primarily help you extricate yourself from a bad situation, like a mugging at an ATM or an attempted rape. We also worked on partner carries, a skill you might need for a friend who breaks an ankle during a hike, and water rescues. These were, in a word, humbling. As physically capable as I am, I sucked at this stuff. Thoughts of being unable to help or protect my daughter plagued me and still do. I clearly need to work on these weaknesses, and eventually I’ll need to teach them to my daughter.

Don't worry, everything's fine. Until it's not.

Don’t worry, everything’s fine. Until it’s not.

We’d all like to think that magical skills will appear if and when needed. I highly recommend David McRaney’s book You Are Not So Smart (and blog) to learn all the various ways you’re deluding yourself, because awareness is the first step toward correcting the mistake. In particular, when it comes to emergencies, we all believe we will rise to the occasion and not only save ourselves, but become a hero and save everyone else.

I hear this chatter every time another disaster or situation grabs the headlines, and—folks—it just ain’t true. According to psychology research, some 75% of us would sit in a stupor unable to move while our poor brains try to make sense of a situation that no longer resembles normalcy.

McRaney talks about this, the Normalcy Bias, in chapter 7 of his book. He gives the example of the worst air disaster in the world that took place in 1977 on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. One plane hit another while on take-off. Everyone on the take-off plane died, but there were many survivors in the plane on the ground. But then the plane caught fire. Dozens of people who had survived the impact sat stone-faced and unable to help themselves, thereby sealing their fate as the plane was consumed in flames.

This is a perfectly normal human response. Odds are, you and I would react the same way. It’s the simplest answer as to why the photographer of that man in the subway picked up his camera instead of rushing to his aid.

But not every person will react to every emergency in the same way. Two silly stories to illustrate my point. My husband and I once took a moonlit hike and came face-to-face with the raised tail end of a skunk. As I started to launch into a dissertation explaining the situation to him, my husband wrapped his arm around me, pulled me away and said, “Step. Back.” So if a skunk is threatening to douse us with noxious fumes, I’m not the rescuer of choice. However, if you have a fire, I might be. I was 7 months pregnant and trying to teach my husband how to cook on the grill since I would soon have my hands full. We had company over, so he loaded up the grill with sausages. What he didn’t know was that a) sausages cook quickly and b) they catch fire easily. He came in to tell me the grill was on fire and within about 2.3 seconds, I was outside cutting off the gas and shutting the grill. Our friend said at the time that he’d never seen a pregnant lady move so fast. My husband is an emergency physician, and I’d never seen him lose his cool, but this was not his territory.

So what can we do?

  • CPRClassLearn self-defense. Simple enough. Classes are widely available, and you should frequently re-take a course to keep your skills fresh and carved into your brain at the ready. Martial arts are great, but not exactly the same thing. If you can stomach it, there are videos online of street fights and road rage incidences and you can see how little time you have to actually shift the odds in your favor. All it takes is 30 seconds or less to get thrown to the ground and kicked in the head several times.
  • Take a CPR course and learn other safety techniques. By sheer stats, studies have shown that CPR isn’t all that useful, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t saved lives. Having a little bit of knowledge in an emergency can mean all the difference between life and death. Consider learning some first aid and the Heimlich maneuver as well. If you’re a parent, I highly recommend you take these types of courses.
  • Run scenarios in your head. This won’t be pleasant, but it’s necessary. There’s a reason elite athletes use visualization techniques—they work. They help prime the brain for action. The next time you’re in an airplane, actually identify your closest exit (keeping in mind your nearest exit may be behind you…) and consider a few different confounding factors to getting there. Maybe everyone is clogging the aisle and you need to consider jumping over how many rows of seats to get to the exit? Maybe the plane is full of smoke and you have to look for the indicator lights on the floor of the cabin? Maybe it’s a water landing and you need to know not to run for the back door, because the tail of the plane will sink first?
  • Practice. Consider making this part of your weekly fitness ritual and add in a scenario to give the exercise more charge. Find a friend and practice different partner carries like the fireman carry or piggyback. If you can, practice trying to rescue someone from a pool or other body of water. Ever since the subway event, I practice climbing walls of various heights, some taller than me.

Because—I hate to break it to you—if you’re working muscles that have no function or you’re training in ways that won’t serve you when the shit hits the fan, then you’re a show pony. Don’t be a show pony. You were given a human body with inherent strength, built for purpose. Embrace that heritage and be an asset to yourself, your family, and your community. Be strong to be useful.


9 Responses to “Being Strong to Be Useful”

  1. This is inspirational, and particularly pertinent in view of our recent national disasters in the U.S. Thanks for saying it.
    BTW, Penn and Teller did a B*llSh*t episode on martial arts; as I recall, they’re not fans. Should be able to see it on YouTube.


  2. Great post, Karen. You and I have discussed some of this stuff together before, and you know my experiences with the Earthquakes from 2010-2012 in my home town of Christchurch. In that event, particularly the Feb 22nd main quake, I saw first-hand just how paralysed people can become in these sorts of scenarios.

    A short video clip of what happened that day from “When a City Falls”

    Working in corporate health, and having asked people for years “could you save your own life if you had to”, we suddenly had something real to lock on to as a reference point. We learned, and saw, just how much the fight or flight response can paralyse people to the point that they can do neither. The feeling of adrenaline, the rapid heart rate, the breathing… all can overwhelm someone to the point that they can’t move.

    I wrote my own piece of “survival of the fittest” and what was required to make it through that day.

    Thanks for writing another great post!

    • Indeedy, Mr. Scott. That’s why I love MovNat’s focus on making fitness situational and practical. Nobody in Boston last week was expecting what happened either, and I have to say, I was pretty impressed by what I saw.

  3. Paleo Magazine Reply 04/24/2013 at 8:13 pm

    Excellent post Karen! In my opinion, this needs to be said way more often. You hit the nail on the head!

  4. Excellent post. I recently did a 3 day street medic training. The scenarios we ran were incredibly intense. Each time we did another one I got a tiny bit more comfortable. Practice, practice, practice. It was the most humbling experience I have ever had.


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