Primer for survival

All these people nowadays who are stockpiling canned and dried foods and powdered milk in their basements in order to survive a nuclear holocaust should have been turned to television the other night to hear Elizabeth Ann Swift and Katherine Koob tell about their 444- day captivity in Iran. Their account was a lesson in the art of survival that went far beyond mere matters of food, drink, and shelter. In the course of their interview, they provided a summary of those items most needed for the continuance of human life under stress: companionship, structure, religion, and reading books, not necessarily in any order of importance.

Both women agreed the toughest times were those when they were isolated from each other and from society. Together, they found the stresses easier to bear. Although this first element in learning to survive may seem almost trite, it needs repeating in an increasingly self-centered and narcissistic age, when many people think the highest of goods is to be left alone, to enjoy privacy. Ask these women -- the answer appears in the expressions on their faces which told of the bond of friendship that had helped them through, as did their clasped hands as they emerged first from the plane in Wiesbaden.

Next on the list is structure. Miss Smith and Miss Koob had no clocks, calendars, or bells to set their days in motion, so they made their own compartments -- some for prayer and meditation, some for food and exercise, some for reading. The pattern of their days, whenever possible, was set and orderly. In a world gone mad all around them, with armed guards watching their rooms, gunfire in the night, random, blindfolded walks, unscheduled, unannounced moves, these women went sanely and coherently through their days. They made sense of their days, even though one of them was, by her own admission, sure that the episode would end in death.

Prayer and meditation was another steady ingredient in their lives -- for one of them, something recalled from the boundless reservoirs of family religious training; for the other, it seems, a new experience. For both, starting their day with prayer provided them with strength to face the unknown day with courage and grace. Perhaps we should recall this source of human survival when we debate the issue of prayer and moments of silence at the start of the day for our schoolchildren in America.

Finally, and probably in terms of time, most significant, was their constant reading, from the history of the Bell Telephone Company, to the art of scuba-diving, to the novels of Charles Dickens. How many stockpilers of canned goods are also hoarding copies of their favorite novelists or poets?

Let's remember, as we hear these testimonials to the power of the written word, that people need to feed their minds and not just their bodies. When Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia, he took with him the works of Dickens. Miss Koob also nourished herself on the novels of the great entertainer.Was it Little Dorrit, or Oliver Twist, or Esther Summerson, who gave her spirit rest and resilience? No matter. So many of these great treasures are there for the asking, and we should not neglect to prepare our students and children, who may find some days of their lives as difficult as these two women did, to find and enjoy these important means of human survival.

I'm sure the Misses Swift and Koob are glad to be home. Their captivity is no doubt something they'd prefer to forget. To all who heard them recount their experiences, however, their story was inspiring and memorable. Like latter-day Crusoes -- female ones, at that -- Elizabeth Ann Swift and Katharine Koob survived their ordeal in good shape, largely because they centered their lives around the really important things. We all can learn from them.

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