This article is part of a series called
Antivirus For Your Mind.
Robertson was sailing across the Pacific Ocean with his family
when three killer whales simultaneously struck their boat. (Killer
whales often attack larger whales like that, striking it to stun
it. Then they eat it.) The sailboat started sinking fast!
Within minutes, their boat was gone and they found themselves
sitting in silence in an empty ocean, completely dazed.
The thoughts going through Dougals
mind were filled with despair. Why, he thought, had he been so
reckless as to endanger his familys life like this? How
could he have risked their lives with his selfish desire to educate
them in such an unorthodox way?
He himself started sinking into
feelings of despair and hopelessness and guilt as he thought
about the loss of his boat, the danger his family was in, and
the foolish mistakes he had made.
They were in the middle of the Pacific
on a raft and a little fiberglass dingy, without a radio, without
a homing beacon, and a long way from shipping lanes. The wind
and currents were moving in the opposite direction of the nearest
land. They had very little food or water.
The situation was grim to say the least,
and as Dougal thought about it and felt anguish for putting his
family in this situation, he suddenly realized his face was showing
He knew his depression would ruin any chance
they had of surviving. He was the leader. They were all looking
to him. His own despair would demoralize them all, and he also
knew a defeated person doesnt do what he needs to survive.
Dougal had to rise out of his depression.
Driven by the necessity of so great a responsibility, he spontaneously
invented the way out.
He had never read a book about cognitive
therapy. He didnt know there was such a thing. But he started
exactly what cognitive therapists teach their clients to do:
He debated with his own demoralizing thoughts.
His first thought was, I shouldnt
have brought them out in the ocean. But, he argued
with himself, Douglas had grown to manhood in our 18 months
at sea. The formerly shy and introspective twins had become interested
in the world, had expanded their understanding of other people
and had awakened their desire to learn more.
But I took them out on such an old boat.
It was of much heavier construction than newer boats, and
sank slower than a modern boat would have, allowing us time to
get off the boat and safely into the life raft.
But I have now risked their lives. What
happened was as unforeseeable as an earthquake or an airplane
Dougals crash-course in anti-defeatism
worked. He revived. His demoralization vanished and was replaced
by a firm determination to get his family home safely. He explained
their situation and what needed to be done, and they immediately
started taking actions that helped them survive.
They spent 38 days on in their lifeboat
and dingy, overcoming one obstacle after another without losing
heart, and they all made it home alive.
Stories of survival show very clearly the
power of arguing with defeatist explanations. You can see the
usefulness of the principle in naked relief when shown in such
harsh live-or-die circumstances. You can see that the only hope
the Robertsons had of making it home alive was to keep trying.
Giving up meant death. Had they succumbed to despair, the slim
chance of survival they had would have vanished as quickly as
their sailboat beneath the waves.
Dougal Robertson wrote a book about his
family's experience. It is one of my favorite books of all time.
Check it out: Survive the Savage Sea.
Read the next chapter: The
Flying Kitty-Hawk Brothers