Survival at What Cost?


I was reading a blog post recently that talked about the gap between the “feel-good” messages some self-defense instructors teach and the on-the-ground reality of violence. There’s lots of goodness there, but I wanted to pick up on one particular lesson today.

The author writes, in part:

…[Y]ou say…that we can prevail, and you’re teaching us stuff that we ought to be able to work, stuff that some of us can do here and now. And I think that’s great, but here there are no consequences to messing it up. If I fumble my joint lock or don’t punch hard enough it won’t mean a difference between life and death. You are telling us nothing about risk avoidance or damage control. You are telling us nothing about how to pick our battles and when to admit defeat. With you it’s just fighting until victory or death.

There’s more there, and I’ll let you read it, but this is the point I’d like to talk about: You can do everything right, practice situationall awareness and avoid going to “stupid places with stupid people” and deploy your unarmed defensive skills and even your weapon. You might do all that and still lose the fight. And you need to be ready for that eventuality, and you need to have made some decisions about that situation ahead of time.

To be clear, I’m not advocating the kind of fatalistic surrender that some of those who choose not to own their own defense, and who would make the same choice for the rest of us, preach. I’m not suggesting that the fact we may lose the battle means we shouldn’t fight it with everything we have. If you’re a regular reader, you know how far from the truth that idea is. You know how strongly I believe in avoiding trouble when we can, and on being able and prepared to respond to it if it finds us despite our best efforts.

But the reality of life is that we may, in that absolute worst case scenario, find ourselves in a situation where avoidance, evasion, escape and defense all fail. We may find ourselves in a situation where the predator wins the fight. Pretending otherwise is clinging to a dangerous, even potentially fatal delusion. Facing reality means asking ourselves exactly what we’re willing to do to survive, and it means making those decisions ahead of time under rational reflection rather than in the heat of trauma.

So, what exactly would you do, if it meant survival?  This is a difficult question to answer, and each of us must make our own decisions. As for myself, if I must choose between being hurt and being killed, I choose not to die. If I had to choose between being raped and being killed, heaven help me, I would choose the first. I’d rather neither, of course I would, but I’m willing to do what it takes to survive, whether “what it takes” is avoidance, escape, aggressive defensive action, or even compliance. Not surrender, never surrender (and I’d never stop looking for an opportunity to escape), but compliance beats death, hands down.

I’ve survived rape before, and I could survive it again. Death, not so much.

Commitment to survival also means making decisions about what not to do. For example, I will probably not attempt a complicated knife disarming move such as that taught by some self-defense systems. Although my quest to lose some weight and become healthier and more fit continues, the reality is that there are some things that my nearsighted 40-year-old body, with an ankle weakened by an old injury, simply cannot do. The young, fit, ex-military self-defense instructor, whose size and strength easily outstrip mine, might be able to execute those maneuvers perfectly in the controlled boundaries of a classroom. He mgiht even be able to do so in a real fight, though that’s not necessarily certain. But I’m not him, and survival means working within the parameters of my physical capabilities and not his.

This is why my defensive efforts are aimed first and primarily to awareness and avoidance and evasion, and second to the pistol in my holster which, should I ever have to use it, is the only tool I know to equalize the disparity of force that a middle-aged woman (and how did I become that, anyway??) faces against a younger, stronger attacker. Or against a group of them. But my choice to do what I have to in order to stay alive doesn’t end at the place where those efforts fail. Even then, perhaps especially then, I choose to survive, because leaving an encounter with a predator battered and traumatized but alive still beats leaving it in a body bag.

What do you think? Where do you draw these lines for yourself? I know this is emotionally tough stuff to contemplate, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Photo credit:, by Rotorhead


  1. All of that is important to think about. No question.

    But I submit to you that MOST of the criminals who would prey on you are lazy opportunists, and mostly not too bright. They don’t want to work that hard, they absolutely don’t want to be hurt themselves, so resistance or even the appearance of competence and confidence, let alone a weapon, is enough to send most of them looking for easier prey. That’s the reality for most of us, even the 40+ ladies with bad ankles and backs. Yes, there could be exceptions, but in 50+ years of reading about these incidents, I’ve yet to see a different general pattern.

    If you research it, you find that most of the murder and assault happens to two disctinct groups… The gangs and those unfortunately within the range of their wars, and those who are completely unprepared and unaware, usually prevented all of their lives from any meaningful opportunity to learn self defense or obtain tools to even the disparity of force. It would seem wise and right for those of us who are not helpless to teach and protect those who are – as we both do…

    Handing over your life by surrendering to someone who is in the process of committing a violent crime against you is likely suicide. Some survive but many do not. The monster gets to decide that for you. The more helpless you are, the less incentive they have to let you live.

    No, there are no guarantees in life, but I will fight as long as I have breath. I will never surrender.

    • You bring up some good points, for sure. And I think you and I agree that the paramount thing is survival. I won’t ever surrender, either…but there is a difference between surrender and compliance, and sometimes compliance CAN be a good tool to buy yourself space, time or an improved tactical situation. That’s a judgment call we all make in the moment, and if we survive it means we made the right call.

      Thanks as always for your perspective, my friend!

      • I see little or no difference between surrender and compliance. I don’t believe that compliance increases my chances of survial. Once someone has physical control of my body, I’m all out of realistic options and there is very little chance of gaining time, space or tactical advantage at that point, baring a real miracle.

        But yes indeed, that is just my opinion, and each person must make up his/her own mind about how far they would go, what they would be willing to do and why. Nobody knows absolutely what they will do in every situation, and nobody can predict every possible situation, so we must each do the best we can with what we have.

        Don’t get me wrong… It is GOOD to ask these questions of ourselves, and very important to play out the possible responses to potential situations in serious mental exercise. I prefer to visualize myself fighting like a mama bear separated from her cubs. 🙂

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