Is Survival Selfish?

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In his just-released book The Last Train From Hiroshima, Charles Pellegrino quotes one of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts as saying that those who survived were, in general, those who looked after their own safety, instead of reaching out to help others. "Those of us who stayed where we were ... who took refuge in the hills behind the hospital when the fires began to spread and close in, happened to escape alive. In short, those who survived the bomb were ... in a greater or lesser degree selfish, self-centered--guided by instinct and not by civilization. And we know it, we who have survived."

But is survival really selfish and uncivilized? Or is it smart? And is going in to rescue others always heroic? Or is it sometimes just stupid? It's a complex question, because there are so many factors involved, and every survival situation is different.

Self-preservation is supposedly an instinct. So one would think that in life-and-death situations, we'd all be very focused on whatever was necessary to survive. But that's not always true. In July 2007, I was having a drink with a friend in Grand Central Station when an underground steam pipe exploded just outside. From where we sat, we heard a dull "boom!" and then suddenly, people were running, streaming out of the tunnels and out the doors.

My friend and I walked quickly and calmly outside, but to get any further, we had to push our way through a crowd of people who were staring, transfixed, at the column of smoke rising from the front of the station. Some people were crying, others were screaming, others were on their cell phones...but the crowd, for the most part, was not doing the one thing that would increase everyone's chances of survival, if in fact a terrorist bomb with god knows what inside it had just gone off--namely, moving away from the area.

We may have an instinct for survival, but it clearly doesn't always kick in the way it should. A guy who provides survival training for pilots told me once that the number one determining factor for survival is simply whether people hold it together in a crisis or fall apart. And, he said, it's impossible to predict ahead of time who's going to hold it together, and who's going to fall apart.

So what is the responsibility of those who hold it together? I remember reading the account of one woman who was in an airliner that crashed on landing. People were frozen or screaming, but nobody was moving toward the emergency exits, even as smoke began to fill the cabin. After realizing that the people around her were too paralyzed to react, she took direct action, crawling over several rows of people to get to the exit. She got out of the plane and survived. Very few others in the plane, which was soon consumed by smoke and fire, did. And afterward, I remember she said she battled a lot of guilt for saving herself instead of trying to save the others.

Could she really have saved the others? Probably not, and certainly not from the back of the plane. Just like the Hiroshima survivors, if she'd tried, she probably would have perished with them. So why do survivors berate themselves for not adding to the loss by attempting the impossible? Perhaps it's because we get very mixed messages about survival ethics.

On the one hand, we're told to put our own oxygen masks on first, and not to jump in the water with a drowning victim. But then the people who ignore those edicts and survive to tell the tale are lauded as heroes. And people who do the "smart" thing are sometimes criticized quite heavily after the fact.

In a famous mountain-climbing accident chronicled in the book and documentary Touching the Void, climber Simon Yates was attempting to rope his already-injured friend Joe Simpson down a mountain in bad weather when the belay went awry. Simpson ended up hanging off a cliff, unable to climb up, and Yates, unable to lift him up and losing his own grip on the mountain, ended up cutting the rope to Simpson to save himself. Miraculously, Simpson survived the 100 foot fall and eventually made his way down the mountain. But Yates was criticized by some for his survival decision, even though the alternative would have almost certainly led to both of their deaths.

In Yates' case, he had time to think hard about the odds, and the possibilities he was facing, and to realize that he couldn't save anyone but himself. But what about people who have to make more instantaneous decisions? If, in fact, survivors are driven by "instinct not civilization," as the Hiroshima survivor put it, how do you explain all those who choose otherwise?  Who would dive into icy waters or onto subway tracks or disobey orders to make repeat trips onto a minefield to bring wounded to safety?  Are they more civilized than the rest of us? More brave? More noble?

It sounds nice, but oddly enough, most of the people who perform such impulsive rescues say that they didn't really think before acting. Which means they weren't "choosing" civilization over instinct. If survival is an instinct, it seems to me that there must be something equally instinctive that drives us, sometimes, to run into danger instead of away from it.

Perhaps it comes down to the ancient "fight or flight" impulse. Animals confronted with danger will choose to attack it, or run from it, and it's hard to say which one they'll choose, or when. Or maybe humans are such social herd animals, dependent on the herd for survival, that we feel a pull toward others even as we feel a contrary pull toward our own preservation, and the two impulses battle it out within us ... leading to the mixed messages we send each other on which impulse to follow.

Some people hold it together in a crisis and some people fall apart. Some people might run away from danger one day, and toward it the next. We pick up a thousand cues in an instant of crisis and respond in ways that even surprise ourselves, sometimes.

But while we laud those who sacrifice themselves in an attempt to save another, there is a fine line between brave and foolish. There can also be a fine line between smart and selfish. And as a friend who's served in the military for 27 years says, the truth is, sometimes there's no line at all between the two.

Photo credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP-Getty