These two incredible men survived because they simply would not give up, even when everything in each of their circumstances screamed that giving up was the only option. They chose their own way, willingly assuming total responsibility for their lives, refusing to step into victim mode by blaming God, nature or human cruelty for what had befallen them.
Against All Odds
“We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.”—Winston Churchill
In January 1982, American Steven Callahan set sail from the Canary Islands in a small sailboat he’d built himself, his plan to cross the Atlantic. He was 30 years old, fit, capable and looking forward to the voyage that had been his dream since boyhood. Six days later while he slept content in his berth, the boat struck something big, most likely a whale, and capsized. Awakened by the collision, Callahan had only a few precious seconds to grab what he could before scrambling to position himself safely aboard a five-foot inflatable dinghy.
Having managed to grab only a bit of food and some bottled water, along with a solar still for making sea water potable and a fishing harpoon gun, Callahan knew from the onset that his chances of survival were not good. He had no way of knowing, however, that he was about to embark on an amazing journey in self-reliance that would last an astounding 76 days and carry him 1,800 miles across a vast and frightening sea.
During his ordeal, Callahan faced death continually, fighting off sharks, exhaustion and the utter hopelessness of watching ships pass without noticing him. But despite the terror presented in every moment, he held tight to his wits and forced himself to think his way through each situation as it presented itself. After losing the launching mechanism to the fishing gun, for instance, he lashed the harpoon to the gun and used it like a spear, often kneeling motionless for hours waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim into the perfect spot before jabbing it. As his body weakened from hunger and the intense and relentless heat of the sun, he scraped bits of rust from the bottom of metal food containers into his drinking water, hoping the iron would strengthen him.
Faced with such formidable odds, giving up would have seemed the only rational thing to do for most, but Callahan was not like most. One of that rare breed of survivors who understands that we all have within us the power to carry on in spite of overwhelming circumstance, Callahan became his own survival coach, talking to himself constantly, convincing himself over and over again that he could make it.
“I tell myself I can handle it,” Callahan later wrote in Adrift At Sea, his narrative accounting of the ordeal. “Compared to what others have been through, I’m fortunate.”
It’s hard to imagine circumstances more unfortuitous than being lost at sea, but perhaps Callahan was thinking of Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who as a young Austrian doctor forty years before, had found himself in perhaps even more terrorizing circumstances when along with his young bride, his parents and his brother, he was arrested, stripped of everything he held precious, and taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
In the early days of his imprisonment Frankl kept his mind alert by trying to reconstruct the manuscript he’d been writing prior to his arrest. First recalling it word for word in his mind, and then writing it down on stolen slips of paper, Frankl realized the completion of this task gave him purpose, a reason for holding on to a vision of the future.
Later, when during a particularly gruelling pre-dawn march, another prisoner commented on the fate of their wives, Frankl discovered that as long as his memory of his wife remained, he could keep her present with him. Knowing she might already be dead, he accepted the possibility and then told himself that as long as he could keep her in his mind, she would remain alive to him. Later Frankl wrote that it was in that moment that “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.”
It would be his discovery that meaningfulness can be found in suffering that would most impress Frankl and lead to his life’s work.
“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman,” he wrote years later, “but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
There are certain things in life you can’t control, such as nature, the past and other people. Steven Callahan and Viktor Frankl understood this. They also understood, as all successful people do, that we can control our thoughts and our actions and when we do that, when we step up and take 100 percent control of our lives. By taking command of what we think and what we do, we become the masters of our fate. We also become undefeatable.
No one succeeds in life by taking the easiest path. We succeed only after we determine that we will, commit ourselves to it, and then insist on keeping our minds positive while we move consistently and persistently toward our goals.
I wanted to tell you about Steven Callahan and Viktor Frankl not only because I personally think their individual stories of triumph are incredible, but also because I know that on any journey toward success you may embark on, you’re bound to come up against obstacles that may, for a time, seem impenetrable. When you do, I hope you will spend some time thinking of Callahan and Frankl and reminding yourself that compared to them, your task is really not all that insurmountable, after all. If you are committed you’ll find a way. I hope you will remind yourself of this and then follow Frankl’s example of returning your full focus and intention to the task at hand.
After that, you’ll need only to let your voice be strong as you utter those powerful and life-changing words: “I can handle this. I know I can.”