Steven Callahan's Letter

Steven Callahan's complete letter regarding his questions

To: Byron Woodman
From: Steven Callahan
Re: Survival Questions
4 December 2004

Dear Byron,

I'm not sure what to tell you about questions I asked myself.  There were so many.  Generally, I have always been a pretty philosophical person (majored in it in university) so always when at sea I think about such things as man's place in the world, the nature of reality, and other abstracts.  While surviving in my raft, I wondered about such things as well.  But physical survival requires physical considerations first.

Therefore, on a pragmatic level, I would ask myself each day, which of the elements most critical to my physical survival needed the most attention: water, food, or raft?  All other considerations were secondary because without these primary needs being taken care of, I would not live.  Did I have the maximum amount of water stored; had I caught enough food for a couple/few days; had the raft developed any small problems that might become larger ones?

I also have found that solutions rest within problems and an accurate dissection of the problem. I would ask, What specifically are the most basic elements of the problem that I am currently facing, and what among my limited resources would address that specific need? Eg. The problem is not that the solar still does not work, but that it is getting torn from wave action and the water it produces is getting polluted with salt water.  The eventual fix was not to patch it and try again but to use it in a completely different way than that directed.

Of course, one also has time in such circumstances to review one's pathetic little life, so I often asked myself, "Why was I such a failure?", in many ways, particularly socially.  This gave me a good deal to consider, because questions then sprang from it: How can I do better at relationships; how can I be more responsible financially . . .?  One might sum these things up as "How can I be a better person, to be of more help to others, to be a willing participant in my society?" A sense of belonging to something greater than one's self gives the survivor a sense of purpose and reason to hang on: to fix one's self.

Many things happened and appeared around me that I can only describe as miraculous, so many questions were those of shear wonder. "Why is it that the fish learned the range of my spear gun within 24 hours, and teasingly skirted around the raft just outside of that range, but as my voyage lengthens, they bump the bottom of the raft, and get close enough so that I can jab my spear into them, and even at times let me touch them as they swim by?"

One of the central themes in Adrift has to do with the dilemmas incorporated into our every decision and paradoxes incorporated into virtually every aspect of our lives.  For example, if I used a piece of gear to make a device to my benefit, I also lost precious raw material that I might need to create something even more critical to my survival later on. Therefore, I asked myself the constant question, "What is the worst-case scenario if I do this?" If I could accept the worst case, the decision was easy.  If I could not, I would search for another answer.  Similarly, when it blew hard, I made good progress towards salvation, but it was hard to fish or produce water, and I got more salt-water sores.  If it was calm, I'd produce good water and more likely catch fish, but I made no progress towards salvation.   Therefore, I asked myself, "What are the beneficial elements of what is happening right now?" so that I could concentrate on those and exploit those opportunities while ignoring as much as possible negative elements.

Of course, there are so many more questions and concepts that proved critical to my survival.   Perhaps the most important sprang from my immediate realization that I would inevitably make mistakes, but I would not live unless I took a proactive approach and never yielded to a "good enough" attitude or laziness, so I asked myself constantly the very simple question: "Am I doing the best I can?"  If the answer was "Yes", well, I then accepted my reality; if the answer was "No", old Captain Bligh got out his whip. 

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