I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for “fantasy” worlds. I don’t necessarily mean fantasy in terms of fairies and elves and goblins, but in the sense of wholly created “worlds” that feel complete. One of the first I recall reading was the Earth-Sea trilogy which took place on a planet very unlike our own.
Anyway, the latest series I’ve been sucked into, like many is “The Hunger Games”. For those of you who live under a rock and have missed all the hoopla, it is set in a future dystopia where “Districts” are required to send a male and female “tribute” to the “Capitol” to participate in gladiatorial combat to the death. The opening scenes remind me much of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
In any case, at a couple of points, the story’s hero, Katniss Everden is told by her drunken mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, “Stay Alive”. On the face of this, when heading into near certain death, this advice from a drunk seems rather pointless. After all, isn’t everyone in the “Games” trying to Stay Alive? She at first dismisses him as a drunken fool.
However, as time goes on, despite not being able to communicate directly with him, she starts to understand him better.
And while never fully stated, I believe she finally realizes his advice wasn’t nearly as obvious as it sounds. It is rather more like a Zen Koan. By staying alive, she’ll live.
The first time she applies this lesson, without fully realizing it, is right when the games begin. Unlike many of the tributes who go for the cache of items the Gameskeepers provide at the start of the game, she grabs one or two items and flees for the woods, barely staying alive in the process. However, she learns that night that 11 of the 24 people who started the game died in the initial moments, most of them trying to grab items from the cache. They had failed to stay alive. More importantly, they had failed to follow the advice of “Stay Alive”. Rather, while planning for the future (“If I can get these weapons now, I can use them later on”) they failed to take into account the present. In the present there were 23 other tributes intent on killing them.
Soon Katniss realizes that by focusing on “staying alive” she can actually win the games. She makes some mistakes, but also does many things right. Once she’s assured that she can stay alive, only then does the actually go on the offensive. As a result she at the end, she is still alive.
Ultimately, I realized this similar to the point I often try to drill into people when I say, “fly the plane”. This reflects lessons learned by the NTSB and others that there are airplane crashes that result as a result of the pilot failing to do the most important job, flying the plane. They may get distracted, or worse focused on the wrong issue and and end up flying the plane into the ground.
If you don’t believe me, think back to your early days as a driver and how you might have been easily distracted adjusting the radio, or picking up something off the floor. If you’re like most drivers, you probably had a few near misses where the distraction from driving almost caused an accident, or worse, did cause an accident.
In my most memorable incident, I was in a vehicle with my father, approaching a merge and was trying to downshift. I was still intent on learning to drive stick and this truck was a bit tricky at times. But I was determined to properly downshift. So determined in fact that I ignored the big red hexagonal sign with the bright white letters instructing me as to what I really should have been doing. I also ignored (well honestly I think I may have snapped at least one reply) my father’s increasing admonishment to do as that sign instructed lest something bad happened.
I can’t recall if I successfully downshifted or not, but I do know that once I returned to the actual task at hand, DRIVING, I was about 40′ beyond said sign and was lucky I hadn’t been hit by a car from the other leg of the merge. I had been distracted by something that I thought was very important, “downshifting and not stalling out” and missed the real goal at the time, STOPPING. Or in other words, staying alive. Sure, downshifting and not stalling out was an admirable goal. And had the “stopping” part been successfully managed, the proper goal to focus on. But the “stopping” part really trumped all else.
So: Stay Alive first and then focus on winning