How do humans find the strength to endure?
April 4, 2008 6:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for writings about human psychological endurance in the face of extreme hardship, whether that hardship is by choice or circumstance. Examples inside.

I watched a show recently about space exploration, and it briefly touched on the psychological strength the astronauts must have in order to survive in such isolated and confined conditions.

Awhile ago, I saw a documentary on a ten year old African boy who had become responsible for his entire family since his mother and brother developed AIDS. He lived in the face of crushing poverty and provided food for his family by walking barefoot for miles each day to sell [something, I don't remember what] at a market.

Certainly there are many examples in the news every day - people in war zones, people coping with natural disasters, etc. There are also those who put themselves in dangerous or high pressure situations, such as mountaineers.

I wonder how the people in these examples process their suffering. How did they find a reason to go on? How do they have the resilience to come back from hardship? What is the difference between those that mentally survive and those that crack under the pressure?
posted by desjardins to Human Relations (26 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
This article about Aron Ralston, the rock climber who amputated his own arm, should have just the kind of information you're wondering about.

You can also read the history of the Donner party.
posted by laconic titan at 6:15 AM on April 4, 2008

I'm always interested in stories about the British SAS and their various tales of survival in the face of extreme hardship. "the one that got away" by Chris Ryan about the same mission that the "Bravo two zero" book was about, describes the escape and run to Syria by the one guy who managed to evade capture. He didn't have much food, or water, there were freezing temperatures, people were shooting at him, and i think the distance he walked was something like 300 kms.

In addition to that, i find absolutely fascinating the stories about the endurance tests to get into the SAS in the first place. There's plenty of serious distance running, and in the evade/capture test, they endure many hours of rough treatment. stress positions, blasting white noise on speakers, lack of sleep, verbal abuse etc. through all these exercises there is the constant temptation to "just give in and have a nice cup of tea in the back of the van, and lets forget all about this SAS nonsense and just go home".

just had a look and actually, andy Mcnabb's book, "immediate action" covers this part of his life and his earlier life in the SAS. both the above are really interesting books IMHO.
posted by galactain at 6:26 AM on April 4, 2008

You must read Man's Search for Meaning, a book written by a Holocaust survivor/psychotherapist.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:33 AM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl asks why some people survive and some don't in the face of extreme hardship. He was a doctor sent to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He concluded that those who found some meaning for their life tended to survive, because they had some faith in a future for themselves. The Wikipedia page is a pretty good summary of the book. Frankl went on to become a psychotherapist and founded his own therapeutic approach, logotherapy.

On preview - bugger, beaten to it, ho hum. Read it anyway.
posted by terrynutkins at 6:37 AM on April 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

There's a good book specifically about this, called Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies and why. I haven't read it, but it's been highly praised by a lot of people I know who read survival stories frequently.
posted by OmieWise at 6:37 AM on April 4, 2008

Oh, Aron Ralston also has a book. Also check out The Long Walk, a (maybe fictional, maybe true) account of escaping from a prison camp. Endurance, about the Shackleton's voyage and survival is great. To The Edge, about reporter Kirk Johnson's bid to run the Badwater Ultramarathon is pretty good. Meditations from the Breakdown Lane is about the more prosaic type of psychological endurance involved in running across the US, but it's a very good book, and provides and interesting counterpoint to the more acute stories of survival otherwise listed here.
posted by OmieWise at 6:42 AM on April 4, 2008

There are a lot of books about people dealing with extreme poverty. Scheper-Hughes' Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil is one example; the various child-soldier narratives are another. Generally it's not the physical difficulties that are the worst; it is the worry, degradation, and other mental pressures that provide the real misery.
posted by Forktine at 6:44 AM on April 4, 2008

Since some are mentioning Frankl, I suggest you also take a look at Elie Wiesel's Night as well as This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski. The latter, in particular, is an interesting counterpoint to Frankl.

Nelson Mandela's memoir is long, but the first part sounds close to what you're looking for.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Solzhenitsin describes life in the Soviet labor camps.

Speaking of war zones, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is about Vietnam.

This is an online anthology of American slave narratives.

Hard Times by Studs Terkel is a collection of stories about the Depression told by people who lived through it.
posted by prefpara at 6:50 AM on April 4, 2008

The Endless Steppe is for young adults, but your example reminded me of it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:59 AM on April 4, 2008

Wheels within Wheels by Dervla Murphy - not such extreme physical hardship as some of the examples above, but an extreme situation in otherways, which she is very perceptive about
posted by runincircles at 7:17 AM on April 4, 2008

One of the best books is "The Worst Journey in the World" by Ernest Shackleton. He was hastened to go the Antarctic to collect penguin eggs in the middle of winter in order to prove a theory at the time that penguin fetuses would hold the decisive answer to a link between birds and dinosaurs. When he got back, he found the theory had already been disproved and that no one cared about his expedition because of the war that was then ongoing. It's got some beautiful lines about psychological hardship in the event of one of the worst winters in the 20th century.
posted by parmanparman at 7:25 AM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would also recommend Confessions: an Innocent Life in Communist China, about living through the Cultural Revolution and various prisons and labor camps.

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc follows a family in the Bronx (one of the poorest places in America) for ten years.
posted by brookeb at 7:51 AM on April 4, 2008

One of my favourite non-fiction books is Surviving the Extremes by Kenneth Kamler. He's a doctor who has practised medicine in places like Everest during the disaster with the IMAX team and the Amazon. This book is basically a look at what happens to the human body in extreme environments like the dessert, underwater, space, etc.
posted by carolr at 8:09 AM on April 4, 2008

While parmanparman is correct in that "The Worst Journey in the World" is an excellent book that fits the bill, it is not by Ernest Shackleton. It is by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who was a member of Robert Scott's last expedition.

"South", Shackleton's own account of his failed attempt to traverse Antarctica (which is also the subject of "Endurance") is long, but certainly details plenty of hardship.

Also, Scott's diaries of his final expedition are a good read, and would certainly be of interest to you, though it's long enough that you'd probably only want to read the last couple months, at the end of which everyone in the polar party (including Scott himself) dies from exposure/starvation, 11 miles from a supply depot.

To get away from soul-crushing tomes about Antarctica, "We Die Alone" by David Howarth is a short, not-quite so depressing book about Norway. It is an account of the near-death of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian resistance commando during World War II. The rest of his sabotage party was captured or killed as soon as they landed, but he escaped to Sweden after many adventures, including a week or so hiding out on top of a snowy plateau (this was in early spring) and nearly dying from about eight different things at once. Don't read it if you don't like descriptions of gangrene or self-amputations.
posted by Commander Rachek at 8:48 AM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Touching the void is a pretty good tale of when mountains go wrong.
posted by rhymer at 9:48 AM on April 4, 2008

This Is Paradise! is a really shocking and engrossing account of a boy's childhood in, and eventual escape from, North Korea, surviving despite monumental odds against him.

In a previous, unrelated post, I recommended There Are No Children Here, about two boys growing up in Chicago public housing in the eighties. Amazing Grace, set in the South Bronx, is in a similar vein. Both are heartbreaking and infuriating, but wonderful reads.

One of my favorite books is Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, a memoir about losing part of her jaw to cancer and growing up with a disfigured face. Truth and Beauty, by Grealy's friend Ann Patchett, is a great follow-up and offers a different perspective on Grealy's lifelong struggle with her self-image.

Though I think it's sometimes clumsily written, Wasted is one of the better firsthand accounts of eating disorders I've read, and might be interesting to you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:50 AM on April 4, 2008

You might check out Stones From The River about a female dwarf growing up in Nazi Germany. It may be a little too sweet for what you're looking for, or it might be perfect. It's very focused on her life, as opposed to the world current events, and the feeling is like "yes, there are terrible things going on, and they filter down into our lives, but in the midst of it, there are a lot of us normal folks trying to go about our business and doing what we can about the bad stuff."
posted by salvia at 10:39 AM on April 4, 2008

Rescue Dawn is the story of Dieter Dengler, a man who escaped a Vietnam POW camp and more or less ran through the jungles of Laos, hiding in an abandoned village, for 23 days until he was finally rescued. More on Dengler can be found here. The movie (directed by Werner Herzog) was pretty brilliant.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:41 AM on April 4, 2008

maybe the worst hard time. it's about the dust bowl in the thirties. it's mostly about how the dust bowl came to happen (environmental type stuff) but it also has some diary entries and a lot of personal recounts of what it was like to live there at that time and how hopeless it seemed.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:49 AM on April 4, 2008

Before you see Rescue Dawn you should see Herzog's earlier documentary with Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It's good, perverse and true.
posted by OmieWise at 11:55 AM on April 4, 2008

Wind, Sand, and Stars (Antoine de St.Exupery) - Among many other things, it has two accounts of downed aviators, from the early days of aviation; one is a first hand account.

Both consider the importance of the psychological aspect of survival. Their situations wouldn't normally have been considered survivable. One crashed in the Andes and gave up. But then ended up walking all the way out via a psychological trick (or through the power of love stronger than death, depending on your point of view).

Deep Survival, mentioned previously, is pretty good.
posted by coffeefilter at 12:21 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

She may seemed too "pampered" an example for you, but Janet Frame comes to mind because I just finished reading Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. There's also the Criterion-released An Angel At My Table, the Jane Campion film based on Frame's autobiography. Basically, Frame was a New Zealand writer who grew up poor in a family that seemed doomed to tragedy (she lost all but one of her siblings to bizarre deaths and incarcerations involving drowning, childhood heart problems, epilepsy). Eventually she was committed for complicated reasons, and famously she was saved from leucotomy/lobotomy when something she wrote that was released while she was committed won the Hubert Church Memorial award. Eventually she traveled the world, attended artists' colonies like Yaddo, and befriended people like Philip Roth (of all people!). She died fairly recently; prior to that, there had been talk of her winning a Nobel or at least being shortlisted for it.

Here's a totally random article about her life, and here's her wiki entry. Your best bet as pertains to your question though is her autobiography and the biography. The Michael King biography is kind of ass-kissy, but...

There has been talk posthumously about Frame perhaps having suffered from Asperger's Syndrome. (shrug)

Not sure this is what you were looking for, but it fits your question loosely, and it's been on my brain!
posted by ifjuly at 12:21 PM on April 4, 2008

Simeon Stylites was a Christian ascetic monk that lived on top of a pillar for something like 30+ years.

Also the first thing that came to mind when you mentioned self-inflicted endurance tests was David Blaine but that might be too much of a pop culture reference.
posted by woolylambkin at 1:57 PM on April 4, 2008

skeletons on the zahara - in the 1880s, survivors of an american ship wrecked on the coast of africa are captured by bedouin slave traders and exist on a starvation diet as human beasts of burden in the desert for months (maybe even years) before escaping to morocco.

into the whirlwind - a young woman in the soviet union's account of her deportation and years of subsistence in a siberian labor camp.

night - of the holocaust genre, elie wiesel is still the gold standard. primo levi's survival in auschwitz is a very close second.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:58 PM on April 4, 2008

Touching the Void
posted by lalochezia at 10:16 PM on April 8, 2008

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