Persistence Can be Disarming

Though I often encounter people who make me wonder if there’s any hope for mankind — the pot-bellied man who entered the Daily Herald offices shirtless the other day, for example — my overall feeling is that people are amazing creatures. And what amazes me most is our ability to get over stuff.

Think about it. Dreadful things happen to us regularly, and not just the average daily trauma, like seeing a fat, semi-nude man wander into your workplace to purchase a classified ad. Loved ones pass away, relationships end, people hurt us. Things happen, and we think for a while there’s no way we can possibly go on … and then we go on. Some time, some effort, and we get over it, at least enough to continue living. The human psyche has an astonishing ability to heal itself, if we let it.

I especially thought of mankind’s resilience when I read about the guy who hacked off his own arm to get out from under a rock.

You recall this story, I’m sure, from a month ago. It seems a 27-year-old Colorado hiker became pinned under a boulder in a Utah canyon for three days and, knowing he would die otherwise, used his pocketknife to saw off his arm and get free. His name is Aron Ralston; tragically, he lost an “a” from his first name during the ordeal, too.

All of America was stunned by this story, though we agree it would have been even better if he’d had to gnaw the arm off. Many of us wondered what we would do in that situation. It was difficult for me to imagine, though: What was I doing hiking in the first place? Was I crazy? Was I being forced at gunpoint? No, that doesn’t work, because then the gunman could have gone for help when I became trapped. Unless he wanted me dead. But if he did, why didn’t he just shoot me, rather than forcing me to engage in physical fitness? Perhaps the gunman, whose motives for making me walk through the canyon remain unknown, was killed by the boulder that fell on my arm. This makes the rock a cruel bringer of freedom and captivity simultaneously, which is an interesting literary device if nothing else.

But OK, let’s say somehow I was hiking and that I also somehow let a big rock fall on my arm — what then? I am fairly certain there is nothing that could ever persuade me to break the bones in my wrist and cut my arm off with a pocketknife. I wouldn’t even consider it an option. I would think, “Well, I guess I’m going to die here. I mean, what else am I going to do, CUT OFF MY OWN ARM?!?” And I would laugh at the absurdity of such a notion, placing it up there, in terms of feasibility, with alternatives like developing super strength or the ability to fly. And then I would probably pass out from the laughing. I’ve lost a lot of blood, I imagine.

So Aron Ralston clearly had more fortitude than I would, and his indomitable spirit is impressive. Also somewhat inspiring, in an odd way, is the survivalist attitude of Eric Rudolph, the serial bomber who evaded capture for five years while living in the wilds of the American South. According to USA Today, Rudolph — arrested earlier this month in North Carolina — told officials that to survive while on the lam, he ate acorns, lizards and salamanders. What separates this from the typical North Carolina diet is that he ate them raw, and without cornbread. (But I kid the North Carolinians! I love cornbread!)

Some authorities question the veracity of Rudolph’s claims, especially when he says he also ate scraps from behind a Taco Bell restaurant, which it doesn’t take a scientist to know would kill even the hardiest moose. But however he did it, I’m impressed. Living alone in the forest for five years takes strength and conviction, as does hacking off your own arm. Hearing these stories makes me slightly less apt to simply give up when I am faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, though how you can expect me to go on when scantily clad fat men keep entering my environment is beyond me.

The idea of writing about people's ability to get over stuff had been rattling around in my head for several months when the Aron Ralston thing occurred. A few weeks later, I learned that a friend of mine was dealing with some dreadful stuff, causing me to reflect even more. And then this column fell out of my head, ambled onto the computer screen, and published itself.

People behaving and dressing incorrectly is one of the major themes of "Snide Remarks," as you may have noticed. The frequency with which this occurs is much greater in the summer, naturally, and I suspect this will not be the last reference to it this year.