Inspiring Stories – Chapter 1 – Reflections on Positive Thinking

The following is a true story of a 25 year old Chinese seaman called Poon Lim.

Poon Lim left Cape Town harbour in 1942 as a merchant on a British ship. Shortly after, the ship was torpedoed by the German Nazis and sank. Poon Lim swam away from the currents and reached a life raft that was 2,4 m2 big and provided some tins of biscuits, a water jug and an electric torch. Being all alone on the sea, he made a plan for survival. He allowed himself only a few swallows of water and two biscuits in the morning and evening. He waited for the sea to calm down daily, so that he could swim to keep his body in shape when no sharks where around. He calculated that in this way, he would be able to stay alive for a month.

During these weeks, he was passed by ships three times. Full of hope he waved and screamed for help, but each time he was left to his fate. When his food supply ran low,  his situation seemed hopeless.

Poon Lim however found new possibilities in an environment apparently deprived of such. He used the canvas covering of the life jacket as a receptacle to catch rainwater and took apart the electric torch to get a wire to be used as a fish hook. He spent days shaping the metal, using the water jug as a hammer. The hemp rope that held his almost exhausted supplies of food and water served as a fishing line. A piece of biscuit served as bait. When he finally caught a fish, he cut it in half with the edge of the biscuit tin and ate the raw flesh, using the remains as bait to catch his next meal.

At the end of the second month on the raft, he spotted sea gulls. Hoping to catch one, he gathered seaweed from the bottom of the raft, matted it in bunches and molded it into a form that resembled a bird’s nest. By this time he had caught several fish, which he baked in the sun to improve their taste. Some he ate and some he left next to the nest, so that they would rot and attract the gulls. When he finally saw a gull flying towards him, he lay still so it would land. As the gull attacked the fish, Poon Lim grabbed it by its neck. A fight ensued, which he won, but only after he was the victim of deep cuts from the  bird’s beak and claws. He pried a loose nail from the raft’s planking and used it to tear up the empty ration tin to make a knife. He used his shoe as a hammer to pound the metal. He quartered the bird, chewed its flesh, and sucked out the organs. He cut the rest of the bird into strips, which he chewed on until he caught the next bird or fish. 

When it hadn’t rained for a few days, he suffered from terrible thirst. Was there anything that he could he do? – Poon Lim decided to use the remnants of the next bird he caught as bait for a shark. The first shark to pick up the taste was not too big. He gulped the bait and hit the line with full force, but in preparation Poon Lim had braided the line so it would have double thickness. He also had wrapped his hands in canvas to enable him to make the catch. But the shark attacked him after he brought it aboard the raft. He used the water jug half-filled with seawater as a weapon. After his victory, Poon Lim cut open the shark, sucked its blood for the thirst and sliced the fins end in the sun for a meal.

Poon Lim counted the days with notches on the side of the raft. On the morning of the 133rd day, he saw a small sail on the horizon. He waved his shirt and jumped up and down. The craft changed direction and headed for him. Three Portuguese speaking men took him aboard. He had crossed the Atlantic and went on land in Brazil, able to walk unaided. He spent four weeks in a hospital where he found out that he was the only survivor of his crew of 55 men.

Without any doubt, Poon Lim’s story illustrates the brilliant resourcefulness and aptitude of a man who came up with smart survivor techniques that were not only unusual and creative but also showed he had some practical skills. That is why his name, if at all, is probably best known amongst outdoor enthusiasts and adventure travellers.

However, I do not think that this is all to it.
What about a thought experiment: If one would imagine 100 people in the exact same situation, young people of the same physical constitution and general thinking ability as Poon Lim. Would you believe they would have all survived?

I don’t believe so.
I believe most people would have died on the sea at different stages of this journey.
However, not because they would have been too stupid or weak to do the things Poon Lim did, but for another reason. In a situation in which there was no contact to the outside world, no glimmer of hope from anywhere and his food reserves were almost gone, he didn’t lie down to suffer and cry in despair, awaiting his death. Instead, he exercised consequent, imperturbable control over the mind to use goal-orientated, positive thinking that will hardly ever be matched by the average person. For this to happen, he must have had an unbreakable will to survive and the belief that it was actually possible. And this is what positive thinking means.

Positive Thinking is a mental attitude that focuses on thoughts, images, words and actions that lead to growth and success, expecting favorable results. People who think positively anticipate a successful outcome of every situation they find themselves in.

We have probably all heard a friend’s voice at some time, encouraging us to “think positively!” when we were down. And we have all in some way experienced which difference it can make to start the day with a heartfelt smile, triggered by optimistic and positive thoughts. But how much influence can the mind have on the body?

The truth is that the power of the psyche is so strong that it can let you die or live.
It is for example a well established finding of Psychology that widowers are much more likely to die  after the death of their life partner than at any other later stage. A study1 from 1969 for example followed about 4500 widowers over 9 years after their spouses’ death. During the 6 months of bereavement, the death rate was 40% above the expected rate for married people of the same age. Thereafter the mortality rate fell gradually to that of married people and remained there. Interestingly, the greatest increase in mortality was found in widowers dying from heart disease.

A newly emerging field in the intersection of Psychology and Medicine, called Behavioral Medicine2,  has questions exactly like these at its core. Why can some people survive extreme situations while others die and how do psychological factors contribute to the breakout and course of illnesses?
The science therefore examines the interaction of psychological processes like thoughts and the behavior they cause on the one hand with physical processes on the other. It seeks to abolish the reduction of illness and health to physical conditions and applies psychological concepts and methods in treatment strategies.

Of course, all this is much more complex than I might make it sound and there are countless complex factors that play a role in health, sickness, life and death. So to come  back to the simple, to the practical: I would like to see Poon Lim’s story as an inspiration and reminder to never underestimate the power of thoughts and our psyche on all our outcomes in life. If the psyche can play a role for survival, how far can it take us in our pampered first world lives?

So whatever you are striving for at this moment and you are maybe alone on the sea. Don’t give up, don’t say “there is no chance”. Use the power of the mind and see what you will reach.


1 Murray Parkes, B., Benjamin, B., Fitzgerald, R. G. (1969). Broken Heart: A statistical study of increased mortality among widowers. British Medical Journal, 1, 740-743.

Rees, W. D., Lutkins, S. G. (1967). Mortality of Bereavement, British Medical Journal, 4, 13-16.

2 There is no English article yet on Wikipedia that refers to Behavioral Medicine, but here are two scientific text books on the topic: click here for an English textbook or click here for a German textbook (Amazon links).

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2 Responses to Inspiring Stories – Chapter 1 – Reflections on Positive Thinking

  1. Good article and a more unique take on the whole “positive thoughts” angle 😉

    Poon Lim’s story is so extreme, it can be quite a handy reference to put one’s #firstworldproblems into perspective!

    It’s also interesting that there’s been studies linking loss of a loved one to an early death. This has been something that I’ve seen from personal experience with my grandparents.

  2. Monica says:

    Bravo! This is something I have also been discovering lately. Definitely a fresh spin on Positive Thinking, which we often understand as a much less practical sort of faith that everything will be OK regardless of what we do. What we do is very important, so even though we don’t yet know how to solve a problem, we must look for the solution and believe it is there to be found. It takes a great deal of mental and spiritual discipline to do that. I wonder where PL practiced it before his ship wreck? Oh, and I like the visuals.

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