How can the world smite thee? Let us count the ways...
Having limned the odds and wherefores of surviving various challenges in Deep Survival (2003) and Everyday Survival (2008), Gonzales (Lucy, 2010, etc.) looks deeply into the mental processes that enable us to cope with the trauma that often sets in during and after a challenge to our survival. Take, for instance, the prospect of falling overboard and floating in the deep ocean for five days before rescue, as happened to one woman Gonzales profiled in the first book. Though she was rescued, that was not the end of the story in real life; instead, for years, she has had to relive “the pain of thirst, the terror, the physical brutality of the sea,” while her brain has followed its well-known assumption that what happened in the past will happen in the future, no matter how rare the chances of being shipwrecked. Here Gonzales narrates plenty of grim and gruesome tales, not all of them elective; his survivors are those who have suffered war and terrorism as well as falls off mountains and into choppy surf. The best parts are not those harrowing stories, though, but instead the author’s contemplative explanations of the science behind, for instance, how the amygdala works, a blend of inheritance and hard-won education. Pity us poor primates and our amygdalae, for, as he writes, “[w]hen bad things happen, this system can be the source of much sorrow.” One manifestation is the “rage circuit,” which so often afflicts soldiers returning from combat. Those who adapt well to the post-traumatic stress share points in common. One characteristic of success, writes Gonzales, is the ability to step outside oneself to help others, which is “one of the most therapeutic steps you can take.”
Survivors of traumatic events often do not recover without help from others, and Gonzales’ excellent book is an education for those wishing to be of use in a stressful, often frightening world.