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Max Roytenberg: The Drive To Survive

by Max Roytenberg, posted here July 21, 2017

One of the strongest instincts possessed by living things is their striving to continue living, to express their struggle for survival. Living things struggle to keep on living. The complexity and abundance of life forms we find in our world attests to the vigor of this force.

Even among non-sentient organisms, while most of their numbers may die in the face of lethal conditions, evolution, through mutation,  produces individuals that can survive to carry on the species. Within our own human mammalian cellular system, individual cells die only when their nature becomes harmful to the whole. Cells exist which replicate without limit. By seeking to become immortal they become a danger in our systems we call cancer. They end their struggle for life by killing their hosts.

Only among sentient humans in the animal kingdom is an aberrational self-destruction a commonplace. I am reading a story* about a young Jew who survived the Nazi efforts to eradicate all Jews in Poland, where they had dominion at the beginning of World War II. He organized a group of Jews who took to the forests to continue to resist the invading Nazi forces , and their Ukrainian collaborators, after the collapse of the state. He came one day to see his family and friends in the community where he grew up and warn them of impending danger. He knew from reports that they were slated for murder, as were all Jews who could be found. In the event, their Rabbi persuaded the community that, rather than face the perils of resistance, they should trust their fate to a benevolent God. The assembled refused the young man’s invitation to flee with him to the deep forests. Only one girl had a strong enough urge to live that she begged this young man to take her with him. The next day he watched with her from the woods as all in his family, and those in the community, were murdered. He went on to survive, as did the young woman, to raise new families after the war.

This instinctive drive to survive is not entirely unrelated to that inner force of will all require in our lives to succeed in realizing our goals. We desperately need it to confront the challenges we face in making our way in a world that is replete with random challenges. I always felt within myself during my younger years that inner sensation that my teeth were gritted, my energy mobilized to confront come what may. It was not that the environment was malicious. It was that it was cruelly indifferent.

In my view, we, all the actors in the drama of life, have to expect that it will be primarily by our own efforts that we will able to ensure that our desired portion from life, however we define that, will be generous or less so. I was determined to ensure by my efforts, that my portion would be a positive one in my eyes.

Fate obviously plays a role as well. But it must be principally our personal intercession, in the face of these inchoate forces, that can make most of the difference. Would we seize the opportunities and mitigate the disasters or would we allow the chips to fall where they might?

That is the picture. We may not be hiding in the forest from murderers, death threatening us at every moment. But we are in a competitive struggle with many of the others with whom we share our environments for the spoils of life. It may be love or money in all its manifestations, but nearly all of us are out there seeking our share. We are betting our lives on it, on our efforts to carve out our place in the scheme of things. Some may define their rewards by what they give to others, strangers or their near and dear. Most of us want something for ourselves alone among the trinkets we are assembling in our basket. Call it what you will, regardless, we are out there in the fray. Or not.

Some out there may have given up the struggle. We are of every kind in nature. For one reason or another, they may have despaired at their capacity to successfully negotiate the intricacies of the tasks they face. Proud as we are in our accomplishments, there is room for us to make provision for those unfortunates in our calculations, offering a hand up for those who seek opportunities to better themselves. Part of our strength lies in our generosity for the fallen we meet on our road.

But there are others who may have formulated a rationale for a sense of entitlement that insists that others’ labor should be shared with them regardless of an unwillingness to expend their own effort to supply own needs. Therein may lie the seeds of violence and crime. And political strife. I find the attitude immoral. I would protect our possessions from being violated with all the strength I could muster.

Those of us who are somewhere down the pike, who may have already assembled a collection of things we value, have a change of focus. Then we are more absorbed in our struggle to retain what we have accumulated. We know we can’t take it with us, but we look forward to the pleasure of distributing our largesse among the favored. We look forward to the rich psychic rewards of our generosity, material and non-material. There is so much for us in the way of fulfillment in that. Many of us are willing to fight tooth and nail for that pleasure.

Where are you in the continuum? Is the drive alive?

Survive and Prosper!

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