Recently I had the opportunity of reading Laurence Gonzales’ book, Deep Survival, recommended to me by Richard Stark, Head of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Wimberly Texas. Gonzales has spent his life investigating outdoor and wilderness accidents, and has become fascinated with the question of what types of people survive such accidents (hiking expeditions, mountain climbing, etc.). I was struck by the conclusions he reached, not only about these wilderness survivors but by the implicit understandings he offers to us about education.
Sadly, accidents of these types will continue to happen, he tells us, and the folks who survive such situations are not necessarily the experts in wilderness outings (indeed, in some circumstances expertise is a liability!). What is more telling, in his view, is what these individuals bring to the situation, particularly their internal dispositions. Some of it has to do with coolness under pressure, and the capacity not to get ahead of oneself in determining what to do. Crucial, as well, is the ability to appreciate the immensity of the physical task being undertaken, along with the scale of Mother Nature. More importantly, however, is what Gonzales refers to as the building up of an “account of commitment,” (p. 243) over a lifetime. In an extreme situation, where one’s very survival is at hand, that’s “when you’d better hope you’ve spent your life building up a core” (p. 244).
I can think of few things that Episcopal schools do better, or seek to do more intently, than attend to the process of helping the members of our community “build up a core,” an internal disposition, indeed habit of heart and mind, that is not only helpful to them in the here and now but will also come to their assistance in times of need in the future. In our regular chapel services, our attention to the core values of our institutions, our commitment to the idea that matters of the soul and spirit truly matter, we are helping to build up that internal core of which Gonzales speaks.
Admittedly, we are up against some very imposing trends in our culture that mitigate against that buildup. Yet I wish to pose this question to all of you, as well as welcome your response: what are some of the best ways you find that your schools are helping to nurture this internal core? What are some of the key avenues by which your students, families, and faculty are able to build up that account of commitment, something that will not only help them in the type of extreme cases that Gonzales describes, but also will carry them through the peaks and valleys found in all of the lives we lead?