When You Must Cut Off Your Arm To Save Your Life

“I want people to see that for themselves in their own life. Whatever you're faced with you already have the tools to transform that adversity into something that's positive. That's what I proved to myself.”~Aron Ralston

This post is about you, so please keep reading.

I  recently watched a Dateline special on Aron Ralston, the mountain climber and adventurer about whom the movie 127 Hours was created. In 2003, Aron goes hiking in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. As he makes his way through a canyon, he enters a narrow passage where boulders are  wedged between the walls of rock.

When he descends, a large boulder gives way and falls after him to the bottom of the canyon, pinning his arm against the canyon wall, trapping him. He is trapped for five days with only one water bottle and two burritos.

He resorts to drinking his own urine and cutting his arm with a dull knife to try to get free. The knife won't cut through the bone. After five days, he gathers the will to torque his body forcefully in order to break the bones in his forearm and then severs his arm with the dull knife.

As he makes his way out of the canyon, he is forced to rappel down a 65-foot rock face and hike several miles before finally running into a family, exhausted, near death from dehydration, and covered in blood. The family sends for help and Ralston is evacuated by helicopter.

At one point during his ordeal, Aron has a vision of himself with a little boy, a future child. This vision sustains him during these 127 hours of his entrapment. He is now married and has a young son.

This is a horrifying and uplifting story. Aron does something many of us wonder if we'd have the courage to do. He goes through tremendous pain and hardship to save himself and reclaim his life. Now he is free, successful, and happy.

I just wrote an article for the blog Pick The Brain called 12 Critical Things You Should Never Tolerate. The editor tells me it's the most popular post they've ever had. It's about big situations in your life that you put up with even though they drag you down, trap you, and make you unhappy. Most of the comments were positive, but a few were indignant. “How can you tell people to just change these big things. It's not that easy. You don't mention the consequences, the difficulties.”

The very hard truth is this: sometimes we must cut off an arm to save our life.

Sometimes we must do very difficult, challenging, unpleasant things to make our lives better in the long-run. Substantial positive change often calls for drastic measures. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • If you want to get out of the misery of financial debt, you might have to sell your house, get a second job, or ask your spouse to go back to work.
  • If you want to be in a loving relationship, you might have to go through some painful counseling. Or you might have to end your current relationship.
  • If you want be happy and fulfilled in your job, you might have to accept less money, security, or the possibility of failure.
  • If you want to feel less stressed and anxious, you might have to cut some things out of your life and make difficult choices about what's most important.
  • If you want to feel good physically and emotionally, you might have to stop eating foods you crave or love, you might have to expose your overweight body to a personal trainer, you might have to talk about your problems and be vulnerable with a coach or counselor.
  • If you want to spend less time in your car, you might have to find a different job or a home closer to work.
  • If you want to stop feeling guilty, off-balance, angry, or resentful, you might have to have an embarrassing, uncomfortable, or humbling conversation with someone. You might have to change your behavior.
  • If you want to live a peaceful, balanced and organized life, you might have to get rid of some stuff, organize your home, and stop buying things you have to take care of.
  • If you want to feel positive and uplifted, you might have to stop watching TV, listening to negative people, participating in gossip, or allowing yourself to dwell on your problems.
  • If you want to stop feeling drained, overworked, and tired, you might have to cut back on the hours you spend at your job, even if you feel you “must” work that long or hard. You might have to risk the anger of your boss or partners to find balance and fun in your life.
  • If you want to do something exciting, different, adventurous, bold, you might have to admit that fear and inertia are getting in your way. You might have to experience the temporary discomfort of trying something new, risking failure or looking stupid.
  • If you want to have want to have a bold, fearless, and happy life, you must take 100% responsibility for your own actions, choices, decisions, and reactions. You must stop making excuses, casting blame, or accepting ignorance.

Life is all about choices. Rarely are situations black and white or decisions without consequences.

~We must choose what is most important.

~We must examine the potential consequences of our choices.

~We must decide whether the positive result of the choice outweighs the possible negative result of the consequences.

~We must be willing to make calculated guesses and sometimes step into the unknown.

~We must accept that even if things don't work out the way we hoped, something else equally good or maybe better often results.

~We must accept that even if things turn out worse, we didn't die, and we have what it takes to move forward anyway.

The most profound thing I've learned about living a happy life is that indecision is a killer.

If Aron Ralston had hovered over his trapped arm with the knife, wondering for another day whether or not he should endure the pain of severing it, he would be dead. Instead, he endured the pain and has moved on to an amazing life.

You can't stand forever, hovering at the edge of a decision. You will become inert and lose the power to decide. At some point, after you have weighed the odds and looked at the situation from all sides, you have to make the cut. You have to do the hard thing to get to the other side.

If this is you right now, be brave dear one. You will survive at the very least. At the most, you might make your life a whole lot better. It's time to take action.

If you would like to read more about Aron Ralston, check out his wonderful book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place or check out the movie about his ordeal, 127 Hours.

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  1. Most of us refuse to leave our comfort zone for any reason. To make a big change is too frightening for many people, no matter the consequence. And I’m sure some of them are life or death. Although I can’t compare to Aron’s situation, when I worked for my father in the family restaurant, I saw on a regular basis individuals killing themselves with alcohol and cigarettes. Some of them had cancer and could have made the attempt to turn things around. But they didn’t. It was big change, and it was too hard to handle. They sealed their own fates.

    I think it’s a very human thing to not want to face the potential consequence of our “choice”.

    This is a profound post, Barrie, one worthy of bookmarking. As an aside, I’m preparing a blog post where the centerpiece is also a Oscar nominated film from this year! Some very inspirational movies in 2010.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Joe,
      It is a human thing. And the longer we wait to implement those changes, the more difficult it becomes. I know there are some people who may never be in the position to make big change. But even small steps in the right direction can provide some momentum and foster more happiness. Looking forward to hearing about your post related to an Oscar nominated film.

  2. What a powerful post! And an amazing story. I’m sure everyone who read it wondered what they would have done in that situation.

    Your examples are spot on for many people. The Tao Te Ching says “The sage chooses this and let’s go of that.” I have that passage framed on my desk!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Galen,
      I love that passage! It is so simple but encapsulates everything related to choice and happiness. No looking back. 🙂

  3. Thanks Barrie. Just love your powerful words. As a fellow blogger a bit behind you in the blogging learning curve I especially admire how you mate a powerful idea with practical, down to earth examples that show the reader (me) exactly how the idea applies in real life.

    It’s said that fear of loss is at the root of all fear. You show convincingly we have a choice not to bow to this fear.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Christopher,
      Thank you so much for your kind and supportive words. I am so glad you found the post helpful. No we don’t have to bow to fear, and the more we practice walking through, the less fearful of fear we become.

  4. Aaron’s story is so inspirational and your post is a powerful guide for those trapped by inaction.

    While “cutting off your arm” is always scary, it is rarely as tragic as ignoring the things you must do in life to grow and evolve.

    Thank you for this post.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Jason,
      I think I read that Aron was so relieved to have discovered that he could break the bones in his arm, that severing his arm was just something he had to do to finish the job. The desire to live trumps all fear, doesn’t it?

  5. Excellent post! On a much lighter note, this takes me back to years ago when I read Zorba the Greek–a character who embodies living life every day to it’s fullest. When asked about his missing finger, he said that it got in the way of his pottery work, so he chopped it off and kept making clay pots.

    If you love something enough, it’s not really a sacrifice at all, is it?

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Paul,
      I wonder what Zorba did about the blood?? That’s a great story. Passion and fear are great motivators. And so is curiosity — your post title has motivated me to go read it!

  6. Damian Castillo says:

    Comfort Zone: A type of mental conditioning resulting in artificially created mental boundaries, within which an individual derives a sense of security.

    To do something great, you usually must make some significant changes. This scares most people, but the truth is that greatness is in all of us.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      I love that definition Damian. There is greatness in all of us. And there is fear too. That’s part of the human condition. Boldness is just fear in fancy pants!

  7. Hi Barrie,

    Good post. Indecision .. yes I’ve been there and still am a little bit. Totally agree with the first comment by Joe! I went through a breakdown 5 years ago which I would have avoided if I had the conscious choice, and for me it seems easier to take small steps rather than any big risks right now. Have been out of work without that much idea of what to do next .. hopefully will have a positive outcome from an interview I’ve been to today.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Sometimes we have to close our eyes and jump! It’s so scary, but most of the time we land on our feet. I’m sure you will too. 🙂 I hope the interview went well.

  8. I cannot tell you how timely this blog post is for me. I’ve been “stuck” for a long long time. I suppose I’ve been waiting for the universe to throw me a rope or something. Perhaps this post is the rope. I read the post on a site called the Daily Brainstorm, which I hardly ever read. I’m so glad I did. Excellent post! Thank you for the insight.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Kate,
      I’m so glad it came to you at the right time. The rope has been in your hand all along! 🙂 You just haven’t seen it until now.

  9. There are so many people today who want to complain and waste away in their current situation, but will not take the steps, sometime even *small* steps to make a difference.
    This was an awesome story and a great post!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Bernice,
      Small steps are good. They move you forward. I’m so glad you like the post. 🙂

  10. Jeanne Spencer says:

    Great post, Barrie. Very timely…

  11. The bottom line of this post is excellent: that we may have to go through pain or uncomfortable or difficult situations in order to get to a better place. What bothers me is that Aron Ralston is being heralded as a hero. Some of us who spend time in the backcountry realize he made foolhardy choices which led to him being in such a horrible situation: going alone, not leaving someone with the estimated route and ETA, not carrying basic, essential gear and being unprepared… It’s good that he was able to overcome the situation, but I do not find someone making bad choices and then getting themself out of a situation of their own making “inspiring” in the least.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Reiland,
      Yes, I agree he made some bad decisions, especially as an experience adventurer. But I don’t think it’s how we get into trouble that matters so much. It’s what we do about it. We all make bad decisions, handle situations poorly, get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes through no fault of our own and sometimes because we are stupid. But that doesn’t make extricating ourselves any less courageous or uplifting. Aron is human like the rest of us. He made a mistake, paid a huge price for it, and has risen above it. I find that inspiring.

  12. Spot on. I’ve seen 127 hours, and it was hard to watch yet inspiring at the same time. I wondered if I’d have it in me to keep going in spite of the fear of never making it out alive. It was painful to watch what he did to survive, but amazing too!

    Life is about choices, the big and small ones. For me, I think the smallest changes have made the most lasting impact when repeated.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Marci,
      Small choices are great — especially when repeated. Sometimes life calls for big, scary choices. That’s where the rubber meets the road!

  13. Wow Barrie!
    This is an insanely powerful post. I am familiar with the story but you translated in a way that resonates with every person. Your examples of how we may have to face these difficult decisions and actions in life – are brilliant.
    “You can’t stand forever, hovering at the edge of a decision. You will become inert and lose the power to decide.” you are so very, very right!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Aileen,
      You have made me smile! Thank you for your kindness. I am so glad it touched you.

  14. Two days ago I announced my decision to stop blogging because I felt it was getting in my way of being able to write more books. It goes against traditional wisdom, but it is right for me.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Congratulations Christy! I know that was a hard decision. And fortunately, it is one you can change if you decide to later on. Best wishes with your book writing adventures.

  15. Another beautiful post! (And I love “Boldness is just fear in fancy pants.” I might have to frame *that*!)
    You said that you have to be willing to be 100% responsible for your own actions. I think that is so true, and I also think there is another angle to it.
    I think that often people take too much responsibility for other peoples’ lives. They say “I can’t do ‘x’ because then she will do ‘y,’ and if she does ‘y’ then she won’t be happy.” We decide what is best for other people without giving them the chance to do it for themselves, and then use that to justify our inaction.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      You are so right Amy. Fearing other people’s reactions is a huge barrier to taking action ourselves. There are some situations where we do have to sacrifice what we want for another person (like our children or someone who is ill for example). But if we sacrifice just to keep someone happy, it is another way of resigning ourselves to a restricted life.

  16. M. A. Tohami says:

    “How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.”
    – Thomas Jefferson

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      I love this quote Tohami — I’ve never read it before. Thank you for sharing it.

  17. What a wonderful, true, soulful post!!! I just love your insights. And practical. You know, I think people have become estranged from the notion pain (physical, psychological or otherwise) can actually bring you further. When late 2008 arrived and caustic trauma hit just about every socioeconomic strata on the planet, I clearly remember a dear friend’s Italian immigrant mother saying to her daughter, “What? This is NOTHING. We had no FOOD. And no idea where any would come from! You’re complaining because you might have to work a couple of extra years? Sheesh!” I love her. She’s my kind of lady.

    Reading your blog gives me a real boost, Barrie! 🙂

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      That’s a wonderful story Diana. Most of us don’t see the kind of hardships that were experienced by people during the Depression or WWII or in many other tragic situations. We have the ability to overcome so much, but we aren’t really tested (the way Aron was) very often. Thank you for your lovely comments. BTW, my youngest daughter is named Diana. Love the name!

  18. Barrie,

    This was a very powerful post tied to a very powerful story. Unfortuanately I think it is human nature to look for the easy way out of our situations. The sad fact is the easy way only leads us down a path that is in the opposite direction that we need to go to reach our full potential. So, in life we are given a choice and using the story in your example we can either cut off an arm or die in our situations. I don’t know about you but I am ready to start learning to live as an amputee. This was a life changing post Barrie. Thank you for sharing.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Thank you Frank. Yes, the old quote, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is so very true. Why would we want to stay trapped in our “canyons” when we can go live life, even if it isn’t perfect?

  19. Awesome Post! It’s the reason I’m in Coaching–to help people move themselves forward! I sometimes read the Yahoo post particuarly the Financial pages. There’s stories about how people did extraordinary things to get out of debt. Surely enough the majority of the Comments are derogatory, shooting down the efforts and explaining why it was ‘so easy’ for that particular person to do whatever they did.

    For example, one couple worked 3 jobs, sold a new car they’d just purchased 2 months earlier and cut out cable. That year they made $140K and made a big chunk in their 80K debt, most of which was student loans. Instead of people seeing the hard choices they made, they focused on “oh if I made $140k, I could get out of debt too-this is not for ‘real’ people”. “They lived outside of their means with fancy cars and credit card debt!” (The car they sold was a Honda Civic and they didn’t have much cc debt). Of course I must answer, if you worked 3 jobs for a year, you probably could make $140k.

    But the blind dismissal and selective reading shows very much why so many people are wallowing in nothingness. They don’t want to cut off their arm. It’s more comfortable to stay inert and hide behind excuses.

    That is the biggest challenge of any Coach, mentor, friend, etc. To gently move these naysayers into their own joy. We have our work cut out for us. May you continue to grow forth and blossom. 🙂

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Tiffany,
      That’s a really interesting story. It illustrates what I said to someone above who thought Aron got himself into his predicament and therefore his story wasn’t inspiring. Getting ourselves into trouble is part of the human condition. We all do it in big or small ways. The beauty is in the overcoming. When someone has the guts, authenticity, and self-discipline to overcome a bad situation, it should be celebrated. We call all learn from it, regardless of how they got there. (And that can be a lesson too!) Nice to see another coach here! 🙂

  20. Riley Harrison says:

    Insanity the doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The red flag for me is when every day begins to look like the previous day. I then know it’s time to step out of my comfort zone and do something new. And the greater the leap the bigger the fear. So understanding and managing fear is big in my life. A question that I ask myself everyday is: am I not doing something because I don’t want to (and that a satisfactory answer) or am I not doing something because I’m blocked by fear or some other debilitating negative emotion. And if blocked I want to have the courage to move forward and learn to how to overcome the obstacle. Wish you the best.

  21. Excellent: If you want to have want to have a bold, fearless, and happy life, you must take 100% responsibility for your own actions, choices, decisions, and reactions.

    Choice matters.

    A good read, indeed.

  22. Hi Barrie! You really got my attention when I first read the title of your post. I have seen the movie, I was inspired much by Aron Ralston that he made it within 5 days, all the fears he may be feeling that time and I could tell he was courageous enough to handle the situation. If I was at Aron’s place, I couldn’t think any possible ways to get out of where I was stuck. Your blog is so simple yet very excellent, that it makes me wonder what could life may bring to me and challenge me for whatever reason, and when I finally meet the challenge, what could I be possibly doing to conquer it. Life is about choices and decisions that could mean, “Hey! It’s your decision, don’t regret about it. It made you strong for once or even made you realize something you haven’t before.” The whole blog was great and amazing. Tough decisions weren’t planned, most of them are accidentally made. Thank God I found your blog and realized the importance of decisions in life. Best regards!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      I am so glad you have found my blog helpful to you Riza. Thank you so much for your kind comments. Life is about choices, and sometimes you just have to make the leap of faith when choosing. That may be frightening, but it’s better that staying stuck. Please come back and comment again soon.

  23. As an accomplished mountaineer, I can assure you that Ralston’s reckless behaviour placed him into that position. He purposely choose to mountaineer without a partner which is breaking the number one cardinal rule. His situation occured because of an ego which rationilzed that he was better then eveyrone else; that he could not be injured.

    I agree that all of us face unpleasent and difficult decisions during our lifetimes but if Ralston is used as the example, then I submit that anyone can avoid ever being placed into such a position by simply using common sense and not acting like an idiot.