Laurence Gonzales almost had his hand bitten off by an ashtray.
In his article "How to Survive (Almost) Anything," published in National Geographic's Adventure Magazine, Mr. Gonzales recounts how he had been fascinated as a child by his grandmother's ceramic ashtray, which was fashioned in the form of a coiled rattlesnake. Decades later, he came across the ruin of a stone house while hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains. Picking through the rubble, he spotted his grandmother's ashtray.
As he reached out to pick it up, the ashtray flicked out its tongue. Mr. Gonzales froze, backed away, and lived to tell the story.
Even Laurence Gonzales admits the absurdity of having mistaken a real rattlesnake for an ashtray. But he uses his experience to demonstrate how the mental models we create for ourselves can lead us into folly. Nostalgia, familiarity, and wishful thinking often assert themselves so powerfully that they overshadow knowledge and common sense. We become so focused on what we expect or what we want that we can make decisions with no rational justification sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
CONDITIONED REFLEX OR REFLEXIVE CONDITIONING?
Mr. Gonzales goes on to list numerous examples of experts in various fields betrayed by the mental models of their own experience and training. An internationally acclaimed rock climber interrupted the rhythm of her preparation routine to tie her shoe and forgot to tie her harness. Her subconscious mind registered her shoelace as a harness strap and allowed her to proceed to the next step of her checklist. She survived only because tree branches broke her 72-foot fall.
A policeman trained himself to disarm assailants by snatching a gun from the hand of a fellow officer again and again. After each attempt, he would return the gun to his colleague for another try. When just such a situation arose in the line of duty, the officer neatly disarmed the culprit, then automatically handed the gun back as he had done so many times in practice. Fortunately, he also survived the encounter.
The great irony in these stories is how experience and training sometimes work against us. In both mountaineering and law enforcement, as in every potentially hazardous field, exhaustive preparation conditions men and women to react instinctively and reflexively, since a moment's hesitation may mean the difference between life and death. In situations of crisis, however, our instincts may propel us in the wrong direction.
The human brain is equipped with a mental filter that screens out distractions and helps us focus on what is truly essential. But when the unexpected or unfamiliar contradicts our subconscious expectations, the system that usually works to our benefit can blind us to dangers that may threaten our very lives. The more our actions become governed by reflex, the less likely we are to recognize the novelty of the unexpected by pausing to consider how a new situation does not fit the model of our training.
THE DARKNESS OF FAMILIARITY
This phenomenon was already observed nearly 3000 years ago by King David, who declared in his praises for the Almighty, "You bring forth darkness, and it is night." The sages of the Talmud find within the Psalmist's words an allusion to our material reality, where the predictability of our physical world plunges us into a psychological darkness that obscures the spiritual foundation of our existence.
In his philosophic masterpiece, The Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) elaborates by explaining how the darkness of habit and conditioning can create two different kinds of "night." The first is where we cannot see at all. We wander through life, following our daily routines without any understanding of the significance of our actions, without pondering the meaning of our existence or reflecting upon whether we are treading the right path and pursuing the proper goals.
As dangerous as this kind of blindness may be, says the Ramchal, at least it allows for the possibility that we might, on occasion, pause in an attempt to recover our bearings, to ourselves or others if there is not more to our lives and our world than only what meets the eye.
The second kind of blindness poses a much more serious danger. Like a man walking through murky gloom rather than pitch-blackness, it is possible that we will not even recognize our own blindness. We see, we misinterpret, and we carry on, confident in our own perspicacity and convinced of our own sense of reality. And although the harm we cause to our own supernal souls may go unnoticed as we travel from cradle to grave, it will remain with us for all eternity when we arrive in the World to Come.
RESTORING SIGHT TO THE BLIND
So how do we ignite the candle of spiritual awareness so that we can penetrate the darkness of the natural world? Just like naturalists flee the distractions of our cluttered society by escaping into the wilderness, similarly can we use the same mental filter that blocks out the unfamiliar in reverse by momentarily shutting our eyes to the routine of material existence.
Laurence Gonzales offers a strategy he learned in survival school: STOP Stop; Think; Observe; Plan.
Stop. Caught up in the rat race, we see nothing other than racing rats. Break the routine, if even for a few minutes. Get off the treadmill and give yourself an opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes.
Think. What are the possibilities? What if I give up one power lunch for a picnic in the park? What if don't watch the Sunday ballgame because I've taken a bike ride, or boat trip, or a walk in the woods? What if I slow down enough to let my mind ponder the true value of my own existence?
Observe. All the wonders of technology pale before the miracles of Creation. The veins of a fallen leaf. The symbiotic genius of bee and flower. The tranquil music of life-giving water as it trickles over stones or washes against the shore. The reassuring harmony of all the myriad inhabitants of our planet weaving themselves into a tapestry of life that testifies to the architecture of the Creator.
Plan. How do I become a player in the divine orchestra rather than a spectator who dozes through the symphony? How do I integrate into my life moments of spiritual meaning to punctuate the monotony of material routine? Plan to give charity, to visit the elderly and the sick, to smile at strangers, to study words of ancient wisdom, to pray to the Master of the Universe.
HEEDING THE LESSONS OF OUR PAST
Mr. Gonzales recounts one more personal experience. While piloting a small plane on a clear summer day, he gradually became aware of a growing darkness on the horizon. The morning forecasts, however, had contained no mention of inclement weather. And so he ignored the thickening clouds, "despite the far-off voice in my head telling me what my father, a former combat pilot, always used to say about the weather: If it looks bad, it is bad."
A radio report of severe thunderstorms brought him to his senses, and he landed his plane moments before a barrage of marble-size hail began pelting the runway. Had he not landed, his little plane might not have survived.
Students of Jewish tradition cannot read Mr. Gonzales's account without recalling the midrashic account of Josef in Egypt who, as he felt himself yielding to the seduction of his master's wife, saw before his eyes the image of his father, the patriarch Jacob. Remembering the lessons learned under his father's tutelage, contemplating how his father would cry STOP! if he could see his son then, Joseph steeled himself against the callings of his physical nature and fled from his temptress, thereby saving his soul from the devastation of infidelity and setting into motion the events that would lead his people toward their ultimate redemption.
Our world can be a place of darkness and danger, but only if we walk through it dreamlike, with our eyes closed to the miracles around us and to the limitless opportunities for illumination. When we stop long enough to break the conditioning of habit, when we listen to the voices that speak to us from across the generations, a whole new world reveals itself before us, inspiring us with possibilities for transforming our lives through the extraordinary spiritual reality that awaits our discovery.