Words aren’t just a combination of letters. Words mean something. They mean what we have assigned them to represent. C-H-A-I-R really isn’t a chair. It is simply the word we have ascribed to the thing we use to singly sit on.

Nouns are easy to deal with. They are concrete things. A chair is a known entity. You might picture a dining room chair or an over-stuffed easy chair, but you won’t confuse the word with say – elephant.

Some words are more difficult to work with. They carry a load of emotional coloration. One word that seems to depend on a point of reference is the word “if.”

When coupled with the word “only” it becomes a plaintive cry of things missed. If only this or that had happened. If only I had done something else. We rarely think of these missed opportunities as good fortune. We look at our here and now and wish it was different, better. If only we could change a pivotal moment, this moment would be better.

Most of our lives are as wonderful as they are simply because most “if onlies” don’t happen. If only I had been run over by a bus this morning, I would have trouble typing right now. If only I had lost all my money in the stock market, I would be poorer than a church mouse right now. If only … That isn’t how we usually think of it.

If only usually refers to something missed in the past that would make our lives better for having been missed. If only I had studied instead of going out partying, I would have passed the test. If only I had not been on the cell phone, I wouldn’t have rear ended this car. If only …

There is another way to use the word “if.”

I just finished reading The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley. The subtitle is “Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why.” Obviously not light reading, but fascinating nonetheless.

Ripley interviewed survivors of many different disasters from current times as well as researched disasters from the past. She looked into the reasons why there are far more deaths than one would think should have occurred. What happens to people in disasters and why do some survive while many others perish?

Interesting question and the answer has a lot to do with IF. People survive for a few reasons. They actually do the right thing (instead of the myriad possibilities of wrong things) and they are with enough like-minded people who will encourage the correct behaviors. And then there is luck. Luck plays a role, but it isn’t the major factor.

What happened with most survivors was that they were prepared. They played the IF game long before they needed to think their way out of a disaster. During a crisis, thinking isn’t all it can be. Fear and indecision can impair the brains of even the smartest people. So those with a plan prior to the disaster had a better chance of getting out of the problem situation alive.

It isn’t just enough to think about it. It is necessary to practice to make perfect. When you board a plane, don’t just look for the nearest exit, walk to it and see where it is. When you enter a multi-storied building, walk to the stairs in case you need to get out during a fire. If you experience something prior to the disaster, you might respond better during a disaster. (That’s me paraphrasing, it was never quite put like that in the book.)

During a crisis, the first few minutes are critical. It would be nice if each of us had a personal crisis management person at hand, but we don’t. If you have to wait for fire or police help to arrive, you may have used up all your available time to escape doing nothing but waiting. Have a plan; know your surroundings; breathe deeply and evenly (it calms you down); and get the hell away from the danger at a reasonable pace (but not overly rapid rate – running actually makes you lose time over the long haul).

And if you ever find yourself in a dangerous situation, don’t stop to gather up your things. Your things aren’t going to be very useful if you are a corpse. If the house is on fire, you don’t have as much time as you think you might have to get out – so get out. You have insurance, hopefully. If you lose all your pictures, you will have to rely on your memories. If you lose your life, the pictures will still be gone.

If you are on a damaged plane, your carry-on luggage isn’t going to matter if you are trapped in the plane. And if you gather up your luggage, thereby keeping three other people from escaping, you have to live with the knowledge that your two days’ worth of clothes and three ounces of shampoo cost someone their life. Leave it behind, you can get new.

All the things in the book are extremely interesting. Why do we behave the way we do when faced with a crisis? How can we behave better? The basic answer is we can play the IF game. Try it; you might like it.