Book review: ‘What Doesn’t Kill Us’ by Scott Carney.

Required reading for the Struggleverse: “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” By Scott Carney.

The human body has changed little since homo sapiens first appeared on the planet about 100,000 years ago. What has changed is the presence of and our reliance on technology. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our daily interactions with the environment.

We, as a species, have used technology to put space between us and the environment. As a result, modern humans do not see themselves as a part of the natural world. 

“We divide the planet into two categories: things influenced by human action and things that are untouched.” Carney writes. “This distinction is false.”

Our standoffish relationship with the environment is perhaps best illustrated by how we cope with cold. For many of us who live in the northeast, a winter morning might look something like this: We rise from our downy blankets, prepare for our day with a steamy shower, gird ourselves in high-tech, insulating fabric, then ride to our heated offices in our heated cars. The human body experiences little variability.

Carney delves into the consequences of ubiquitous comfort by going straight to the research, and the results aren’t pretty. Aside from obesity, the most obvious disease of affluence, our relative lives of ease, when compared to those of our ancient ancestors, may be to blame for a litany of autoimmune disorders. 

So, what’s to be done? Essentially, be more human.

Carney, who writes with the seasoned skepticism of bullshit-detecting journalist, enters the orbit of Wim Hof, the Iceman, at first looking to reveal him as yet another new age huckster. The only problem is that Hof’s methods work. Moreover, the more the methods are researched, the more scientific support they earn. Through breath control, Hof can regulate his immune system, increase tolerance to cold exposure, and boost muscular endurance. And apparently, he can teach just about anybody to do it.

Cold is a central character in this work of nonfiction.

“The sense of fear that comes from the cold reaches down into some dark, primordial core inside every one of us,” Carney writes.

Through his work with Hof, Carney discovers that perhaps this innate fear isn’t as well calibrated as it should be. With enough practice, we can tolerate much more in the way of environmental and mental extremes than we give ourselves credit. 

The book also explores the appeal of obstacle course racing. These so-called suffer fests, such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, seem to provide people with a certain amount of deprivation that’s lacking in their daily lives. Once again, Carney is no bystander, but plunges headfirst into this world of physical extremes by taking part in what is considered the toughest OCR in the world, the Tough Guy.

In this entertaining read, in addition to finding inspiring stories of people who have kept symptoms of autoimmune disorders at bay, or who have turned their lives and health around, you will perhaps discover as the author did, that struggle is the ultimate cure for what ails us as individuals and as a society.