Here is an activity that I have found to have a strong impact on students’ accepting greater personal responsibility. The activity uses Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air,” a first-person account of an expedition to climb Mount Everest that ended in the deaths of many of the climbers. High on the mountain and in the midst of a terrible snow storm, one of the climbers, Beck Weathers, got lost. What followed is the amazing story of how he roused himself from near-death and returned safely to base camp. Sometimes students know the book, and I have to control their initial reactions when I say the book title so those who’ve read it don’t “give the plot away.” Other than that, this activity has worked great. I introduce the activity as follows:
“I have a story I want to share with you today. This is an excerpt from the book “Into Thin Air” about a mountaineering disaster. A group of climbers has attempted to summit Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, and while coming down from the summit a horrible storm erupts and many of the climbers become lost and separated from each other. A man named Hutchison and his lead guide, Lhakpa, leave their base camp to search for team members lost in the storm. They discover two bodies in the storm.”
Then I begin reading from the book on page 322 (of the paperback version) with the line “‘Both bodies were partially buried,’ Hutchison recalls.”One of the bodies was that of Beck Weathers. Hutchison and Lhakpa conclude that Weathers is so close to death that they will not be able to save him without endangering their own lives, so with great regret, they leave him to sure death. I conclude on page 323 ending with the line “……and save the group’s resources for those who could actually be helped.”
I then say, “But the story continues and the next day the climbers see someone coming into their camp.” I then begin reading from page 328 with the line, “‘Hey, Pete, Check this out. Somebody’s coming into camp.'” I continue to page 329 closing with the line, “About ninety minutes later he encountered some unnaturally smooth, bluish-looking rocks, which turned out to be camp four.” In this segment of the book, we learn that, quite incredibly, Beck Weathers had roused himself from his frozen mountain grave and, by himself, made his way down the treacherous mountain to the base camp.
Usually students are pretty moved by this amazing story, and there is some discussion about the event itself. I then refocus the discussion with this question: “What qualities and beliefs did Beck Weathers possess that led to his survival?” I list their responses on the board. Usually students get the key point on their own that it was his sense of personal responsibility that led to his survival. The 3 things I make sure get brought out are 1) his belief that he was responsible, 2) his belief in himself, and 3) his recognition that he had a choice to lie there on the mountain and die or get up and try to save himself.
To summarize the main life lesson of Beck Weathers’ ordeal, I read aloud the following words from Weathers himself (p 329): “Finally I woke up enough to recognize that I was in deep shit and the cavalry wasn’t coming so I better do something about it myself.”
I then move into a discussion about personal responsibility in our own lives by saying something like, “This is an extreme example of someone who took control of his life in the most horrendous of circumstances. And this same type of self-responsibility is within our own grasp everyday. We all have a metaphoric Mount Everest to face in our own lives. We can choose to be victims or creators in our lives.” Then I put up an overhead of the victim-creator model from the On Course text and talk about the differences between victims and creators. I continue to refer to Beck Weathers with this overhead by asking, “Who could he have blamed?” and “What solutions and action did he take instead?”
I have found this to be a really effective and powerful way to introduce the idea of self-responsibility. What I have outlined can fill a 50-minute class period, but I have also followed this up in the same class period with the mastering creator language activity (On Course Facilitator’s Manual). The timing is tight but can be done!! Referring to Beck Weathers when explaining the Inner Critic, Inner Defender and Inner Guide works great too. Asking questions like, “What do you think Beck’s Inner Critic was saying? What about his Inner Defender? His Inner Guide?” is a great way to get the students to connect back to the story and self-responsibility.
The big benefit to using this activity is that it’s pretty tough for students to complain about the trivial obstacles in their lives (“I can’t get to class on time because of the lousy parking on this campus!”) after they’ve learned about the obstacles that Beck Weathers overcame to save his own life on Mount Everest.
–Sally Sharbaugh, Counselor, South Puget Sound Community College, WA