One of the key skills I nurtured as a high school principal was to remain calm in the midst of stress and chaos. I recall the time when, on a class trip to New York, a student got lost at Rockefeller Center for over a half hour or the time students on a subway in New York gave money to a panhandler who responded by shouting that the money given him was not enough and began to threaten them. Thankfully, calm prevailed and both incidents ended happily. The ability to remain calm in the face of adversity is one of the key elements in Arctic, a survival story about Overgard, a cargo pilot whose plane crashes in a desolate Arctic wasteland.
As he waits for rescue, we see he is a problem-solver, not prone to panic. For example, he digs holes in the ice into which he places fishing lines to catch arctic trout. He also runs a distress beacon powered by a hand crank dynamo. Moreover, he clears away snow to create a gigantic SOS sign that can be seen by a plane flying overhead.
When a helicopter appears on the horizon to rescue him, tragically it crashes because of sudden strong winds. The pilot dies; but his passenger, the pilot’s young wife, survives badly injured and unconscious. Overgard carries her to his plane and attempts to provide rudimentary first-aid.
Soon he has to make a choice: stay with the plane and wait for rescue or leave the plane and try to find succor on foot? In the downed helicopter, he finds some food, a propane cooker, some medical equipment, a sled, and a map of the area. He then decides to make the trek to a refuge that appears to be only several days away. He secures the young woman to the sled and begins his journey, motivated by the knowledge that if he does not leave, the woman will surely die without proper medical attention.
Along the way, he faces several challenges. A polar bear terrorizes them, the map is inaccurate and forces him to take a longer route because he cannot surmount a rocky hill while pulling the sled, and he falls into a deep crevasse injuring his leg. Throughout the entire ordeal, he continually reassures the woman that help is only a matter of a day or so away, even though he knows it is not. He also assuages her fear by reiterating that she is not alone. At every step of the journey, Overgard is torn between being cautious and taking a courageous risk, between taking care of himself and altruistically taking care of his injured sled passenger, whom he encourages by telling her she is not alone.
Knowing that someone is with you at a time of crisis is a powerful antidote to despair. I recall an encounter I had during my early years as a synagogue rabbi. While visiting a hospital, I serendipitously met Aaron. He was 89 years old with no family, alone in the hospital. He told me he did not mind dying, but the staff at the hospital does not leave him alone. They insist on doing all they can to keep him alive. He asks me to send a message to mankind: people essentially love one another. He is so impressed with the goodness of other human beings that he breaks down in tears and thanks me for being with him.
Judaism offers several responses to adversity, which are highlighted by Breindy Lazor, a Jewish educator, on the Aish HaTorah website. They include the following: When faced with stark choices, always choose life over death. Help others who are less fortunate than you. Become better, not bitter. Focus on the positive. Take responsibility for your future.
Overgard in Arctic understands these Jewish responses to adversity. In spite of focusing on his own survival, he takes the high ethical road and does his best to save the other as well as himself. His altruism is worthy of emulation.