All the news lately seems to be bad. Banks failing, rampant greed on Wall Street and other businesses, conflict in Iraq and other countries, record budget deficits in the U.S., the collapse of the Icelandic economy, systematic erosion of personal rights in response to terrorism, terrorism itself, and flooding and other natural disasters.
I’ve recently been reading a fascinating new survivalism book, Emergency, by Neil Strauss. Neil’s theme is preparation and training for personal survival in an increasingly dangerous world. It is also about making difficult choices in crisis situations.
No One Left
“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.” — Herman Neimöller
Early in Emergency, Neil Strauss talks about his grade school history classes and the choices faced by Jews in Nazi Germany. As Hitler rose in power, the German government systematically stripped away the rights of Jewish people. First their businesses were boycotted. Then they lost their citizenship. Then they were forced to register, and a “J” was stamped on their passports to identify them. Then on Kristallnacht, many Jews were attacked, beaten, and even murdered on the streets. And finally, they were put in concentration camps and sent to the gas chambers to die.
Neil’s question to his teacher was, “When things were getting so bad, why did any Jew stay in Germany?” The answer, of course, was that they could not predict in advance how bad life would become. The German Jews naturally saw themselves as Germans first. There was no reason to believe that they were so hated by their neighbors that they would become victims of mass hatred and genocide. By the time their lives were in serious danger, their passports had been marked and their wealth had been taken away. By then, it was too late to leave.
Even in those dark times, some Heroes took action. Steven Spielburg tells one such story in his film, Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who perhaps started out as an opportunist, ended up as a humanitarian. After gaining control of a Polish enamelware factory during the German invasion of Poland, Schindler found that there was a shortage of unskilled labor due to the war. He arranged with the government for Jewish laborers to be assigned to his factory. Although he may have done so initially out of greed – the Jewish workers were far less expensive than voluntary workers – he ended up protecting over 1000 Jews, perhaps saving their lives.
This is the power of one man who treated others with respect and did not let his life be ruled by hatred and prejudice. Each of us has similar power. If we do not like the way our employers run their businesses, we can switch. Or, like Oskar Schindler, we can start our own businesses and run them in a way that helps others while still making a profit.
I spent a year in Berlin, Germany during High School. One day, one of my teachers stopped to talk with me about his experiences during World War II. He had been a Lieutenant in the German army stationed on the Northern front. He said that he had disagreed with many of the policies of the army and of the German government, but that he never felt he had any choice but to serve. Had he protested or refused to follow orders, he would have been arrested and his family would have been punished and possibly sent to a concentration camp. He “sat tight” because he saw no other choice.
Fight or Flight… or Just Sit Tight
How bad is it today? Is it time to leave? And for where? As I sit here in the United States looking at a screwed-up economy, a government that seems to want to bankrupt itself, and loss of privacy and personal freedom, I realize that we are now part of a global economy. The problems we see in the U.S. are reflected everywhere else around the world. And our readers from former Soviet-bloc nations are no doubt rolling their eyes at what are merely minor inconveniences compared to what they’ve suffered for years.
Are we, as Neil Strauss’s book suggests, in a state of emergency? Have we gone far enough down the roads of danger (from angry foreign powers) and erosion of civil liberties that it’s time to get out before our own Kristallnacht? Is it time for each of us to plan our escape from increasingly-dangerous places? Should we just sit tight as so many did in Nazi Germany?
In Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, the most competent engineers and business people decide that the government and incompetent people are leeches on their efforts and energy, and they leave society. In the ensuing collapse, perhaps the people who are most hurt are the ones in the middle – the average, semi-competent individuals. They are “neither here nor there”, not quite good enough to be invited into the domain of Homo Superior, nor strong enough to hold the world together when the finest minds and most effective producers have deserted them.
There is another choice.
The Choice of the Hero
“…take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” – Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
So how bad is it, really? We have faced disasters and crises before. They may have scarred us, but we survived them. We came through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and Hurricane Katrina. All of them hurt us, but we are still here. In 1980, many survivalists thought that economic collapse was imminent and inevitable, but we are still alive.
We can start by changing our own attitudes. Leo Babauta suggests a three-stage plan in his recent blog article, The Cure for What Ails You: How to Beat the Misery of Discontentment:
- 1. Change your attitude and perspective.
- 2. Take some kind of positive action.
- 3. Do something that gives you meaning.
Do you think that a lone Hero has no power to make a difference in the world? That you are no Oskar Schindler? Then join with others. Habitat for Humanity builds inexpensive houses for homeless people. They need thousands of volunteers to give a few weekends of their time to build these homes.
As The School for Heroes grows, we will find others among our fellow students with whom we can work on projects too big for a single Hero. In the meantime, there is work for each of us to do wherever we live. There are opportunities for training and preparation that will teach us not only to survive, but to prosper, and to help those around us to live well.
We can prepare ourselves for disaster without becoming paralyzed by the possibilities. The Boy Scouts taught me wilderness survival, first aid, pioneering, and many other skills that could prove important in an emergency or after an economic collapse. The Red Cross and other organizations teach similar skills to adults. The second half of Emergency is all about developing survival skills in case you are caught in a disaster. In these challenging times, “Be Prepared” is a motto every one of us should take to heart.
Wherever you are in the world, whatever your political leanings, it’s time to take action. Speak up while you still have the chance to be heard. Volunteer to help a local charity or relief organization. Above all, make sure that you are a person of honor in everything you do. Show others what it means to be a Hero, and maybe we can turn these challenging times into ones of hope, opportunity, and freedom for everyone.
Don’t take flight… Bring light! Make the choices that will help bring about a better future. Speak out, take action, and join with others to do what you can’t do alone. Show the people around you that Heroes live among them… and that they can be Heroes too.