Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Lifeboat

There is an old psychology exercise that is used on occasion with groups of people. It is called the Lifeboat. The premise is this: Like on the Titanic, there are only a few seats, about one third of the number of participants. The decision of who will live and who will die is based on democracy. People are voted into the boat. Prior to the vote, each person appeals to the group members for a seat on the boat.

For some people, this is a huge leap to suspend disbelief to the point of being able to do this exercise. For other people, they ask to be allowed in the boat so they can help their children, their work, other people. Some people talk about how they don't believe in the exercise, they think we should find a way for everybody. The insttuctions are clear. Only one third of the people will live.

There are the occasional few people who comprehend the purpose of the exercise - to fight for your life, to convince others that your life is worth saving, to love your life, to live it so completely that you deserve to keep your life more than someone else because you LIVE it. It seems hokey, but it is a sobering exercise, as it is designed to be.

A while back I was in a workshop in which this exercise was used. I was a pretty angry woman back then, but more than that, I didn't believe I deserved life (let alone liberty and the pursuit of happiness). Who was I to live instead of someone else? Heck who was I to take up space and oxygen period? I'd integrated all the horrific words and sentiments that had been tossed my way as I was tossed aside by people who didn't care and by a foster care system that had abandoned integrity. Why would I deserve to live?

What is shocking beyond the scope of the pleading for your life is the response from your group members and the people running the workshop. When you don't get into the boat - and 2/3 don't - people tell you why they didn't or wouldn't have voted for you. It can be something as simple as "I couldn't hear you" to "You didn't show passion." Hearing 10 people tell you why they think you don't deserve a seat in the boat, why they think your life is not worth living, is a breathtaking experience - it takes your breath away. Oddly, people say these things with absolute love and gentleness. Rare is it to find a harsh or spiteful response. People are reluctant at times but are prodded to give your honest and clear feedback (and short, no long-winded diatribes, please).

Many years ago, I was one of the people hearing why I wouldn't get in the boat. I was furious - the audacity of these people! I didn't "believe" in this. It went against my morals. I was outraged! How dare they! We all deserve to live! I won't be a party to this nonsense! ... But under all that, I just didn't believe I was worth it, I passively interacted with life, and I did not live it. I hated my job, I hated my home, I hated my life... I hated myself.

Some people say that the difference between a self-actualized person and the rest of the world is that the self-actualized person is AWAKE! I was sleepwalking through my life. The Lifeboat exercise slammed that home.

One of the men who told me why he wouldn't have voted for me, one of the people running the exercise, was Alan Lerner. A lawyer and a teacher, he was a slight man. His words were matter of fact. There was no malevolence, no nastiness, just reality. He took his reading glasses off and said, "Pamila, I would not have voted for you because..." SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. Ouch.

No one would have voted for me - I wouldn't have voted for me. That very well may be the point.

In the following years, Alan and I would begin a slow friendship. He was on occasion the opposing council on a case that I was the Child Advocate Social Worker on. Alan was always debonair and a gentleman, an inner core of steel that was softened by compassion and kindness. He was a man of honor.

Alan died last month. He was a man I regularly visited every time I returned to Philadelphia. He always made time to have lunch or coffee with me. I would meet him at his University of Pennsylvania office. Piles of files didn't detract from the warmth of his space. Family photos and baseball memorobilia surrounded him as he saved families.

It had taken me a long time to forgive him - forgive myself actually - for not wanting to vote for me to have a seat in the boat. Alan Lerner was a man who lived his life absolutely. Thanks to him and about ten other people, I too learned to live my life absolutely. Oh, I fall down at times, but I can dang sure tell you that today, I would be right there in that boat. If Alan were still alive, he'd be there with me.

To honor a man of Alan's stature, to honor him as he deserves, there is little that we can truly do, little that I can do. But there is one thing, only one thing that would be worthy - live.


So, now let me ask you. Why do you deserve a place in the boat? There are only 3 seats, and you'd better believe I'm in one of them. Would you fight for your life? Are you fighting for it today? Are you living it absolutely? If you are not, why not? If you are not, what are you going to do about it? Why should I vote for you to have a spot in the lifeboat?


*Please go here to read Alan's Obituary. It will make you smile.

*photo is from the intenet.

1 comment:

  1. hmmmmmmm.....I would absolutely have a struggle with this excercise! I would be impassioned to get a seat and my argument would be that I haven't lived the life I want yet! I need the seat! Wake up call...