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What I Learned Falling Through Thin Ice into a Frigid Ocean

How to ORIENT ourselves to prevent catastrophe

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

Last winter, I fell through the ice into the frigid Maine ocean.

My fall was not an accident.

While I didn’t purposely seek to submerge half my body in 35-degree water, I was so preoccupied that I ignored the obvious signs that the tide was coming in quickly, and I was in danger.

What preoccupied me wasn’t something upsetting. Nor was I thinking about the past or imagining the future. In fact, I was as present as I could be. I was on the ice because I was photographing the beautiful landscape.

Even the signs that the tide had come in captivated me. The dips in the ice surrounding me were changing color and texture, and just before I fell in, I was so mesmerized by rising bubbles in a watery hole next to me that I actually videotaped them, even though they were clear evidence that I was perched on thin ice.

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

While it crossed my mind that there shouldn’t be water in a hole beside me if the tide hadn’t come in, I allowed myself to believe that the water in the hole in front of me did not mean that there was water under the fragile ice on which I was standing. That I was capable of being so obtuse remains deeply unnerving.

Ignoring the danger signs, I continued to walk on the ice until it broke beneath me, and I fell into the ocean. I was probably not in grave danger. The water was not yet above my head, and I had time to get out before hypothermia set in. Although it wasn’t simple to climb out over crumbly ice, I didn’t panic. I relied upon the information I’d learned from a video I’d recently seen that demonstrated what to do if one falls through the ice, and adrenaline kept me warm during the 15 minutes it took to get home after I got out of the ocean and off the ice.

Over the next several days, I found myself pondering how I’d allowed my reasoning capacities to vanish so quickly and thoroughly. My conclusion was this: Because I was focused on fulfilling my desire to photograph the ice, I rejected information that interfered with that fulfillment, and I pretended that my fantasy was reality. This may seem obvious, but it led me to some other conclusions that I think are important.

First, this failure to reason happens to all of us.

We routinely and dangerously fail to address threats to ourselves, our loved ones, and our planet. We are metaphorically falling through the ice, albeit in slow motion, failing to think rationally about many of the grave realities around us. We then fail to take action to protect who and what we love.

Here’s one example:

We all know people who deny that climate change is influenced by humanity’s actions, or who think we’ll adjust to a warming Earth. But most of us who accept the evidence that current global warming is human-caused and may reach a catastrophic tipping point if we don’t change our ways still choose to:

1. Fulfill desires that come with big doses of carbon and/or methane entering the atmosphere.

2. Reject learning about ways to reduce our carbon footprint that will interfere with the fulfillment of those desires.

3. Pretend that our choices don’t matter, or our efforts at changing systems will be for naught, or things will all work out through some last-minute technological fix by someone else.

However, there are ways to resist these very human responses to both short-term and long-term dangers.

The next time I’m preoccupied or distracted in a dangerous situation, I hope that reason will interrupt my fantasy world. But hope is not enough. I need to cultivate and practice ways of thinking and acting to ensure a safe outcome.

I’ve come up with the acronym ORIENT to help me remember the steps to take. I need to:

Observe how my desires and habits are narrowing my ability to see reality clearly.

Reflect upon what distracts me so that I can be cognizant of when distractions might lead to danger.

Inquire about the situation by asking: What is really occurring? What should I pay attention to? What evidence should I be viewing?

Envision what might happen if I don’t make wise choices.

Navigate a new path based on evidence, reason, and my values.

Tackle the situation with soutionary thinking and action.

This ORIENT approach can be useful not only for avoiding personal dangers like falling through the ice but also for avoiding planetary catastrophes.

When we are in danger of allowing our desires to eclipse our values, of burying our heads in the sand through daily distractions, and of pretending our fantasies are a reality, we can ORIENT in similar ways.

What might ORIENTing look like in relation to the climate change example?

We can choose to:

Observe our personal choices and societal systems that contribute to climate change.

Reflect upon what distracts us from working to change both our own habits and the systems that cause harm.

Inquire into our collective impact by doing research to obtain accurate information.

Envision what might happen if we fail to shift societal systems that are destructive and if we don’t personally engage with solutionary thinking and action.

Navigate our new awareness toward what we can most effectively, wisely, and enthusiastically commit to doing.

Tackle the situation by using a solutionary process to avert the worst of climate change.

I invite you to try out this process and ORIENT yourself to a global danger that concerns you, and then to discover what changes you are ready and able to make. I also hope that ORIENTing proves useful in personal situations. It’s been almost a year since I fell through the ice into the ocean, and I’d like to think I’ve learned my lesson. I certainly step onto ice better prepared now, if not fully ORIENTed.

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