A friend from the Marine Corps told me once of a flight he took from Los Angeles to New York a week before Christmas in 1960. The woman next to him on the plane was carrying an infant who became ill sometime before the plane stopped in Chicago. Being a gallant sort, my friend decided that he would get off the plane with the woman and try to help her, though it wasn't clear what help he could be, not being a pediatrician, and though he would have a difficult time getting another flight to New York. His place--and the woman's--were taken by two travelers who no doubt considered themselves lucky to get seats. The United DC-8 continued on its way to a fatal rendezvous over Brooklyn with a TWA Super Constellation. None of the 128 persons aboard the two planes survived the midair collision.

When I asked my friend what he concluded from that experience, he shrugged nonchalantly. "I guess my number wasn't up," he said.

The point here is not that virtue was rewarded, but that my friend's survival was out of his control.

Survival by virtue of seemingly blind fate is one species. Survival by consciously or instinctively avoiding danger is another. And survival as a positive act of will is a third variety.

Dr. Karl Targawnik, a psychiatrist in Kansas, survived a succession of slave labor camps during World War II and passed by the appraising eye of the murderous Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. He was liberated from Dachau. Targawnik believes that his brain often acted as a computer, screening information and giving him directions without his being conscious of them. According to his theory, he exhibited something like an instinct for survival.

One of the most purposeful contemporary individual survivors is Norman Cousins, former editor of The Saturday Review, who wrote a best-selling book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, chronicling his recovery from what appeared to be a fatal illness. Stripped to its essence, Cousins' thesis is that he affected his outcome--he survived--by deciding to live. "I think," Cousins said in an interview, "one survives because one wants to. One travels down the road of one's expectations."

This notion that we are the masters of our own destinies, the captains of our fates, did not originate with Cousins or even with Norman Vincent Peale. It probably does no harm to affect a positive attitude toward one's chances, to act as though one will survive the dangers. But does it help, or is it all some sort of cosmic crapshoot?

We are talking here about the real thing, surviving physical annihilation or the destruction of the mind by overwhelming, catastrophic events, as opposed to the various clich,ed "survivals" that have become trendy as we glorify our relatively petty stresses into cataclysmic events--surviving rush-hour traffic, surviving parenthood, surviving adolescence, surviving divorce, surviving the end of an affair.

It's easy enough to recognize the situations where survival is a matter of fate, luck, chance--whatever we want to call it. My friend in the Marine Corps spent no time speculating about "meaning" or significance in the sparing of his life, because he felt it was out of his control. But what about this situation: Four men of equal size, weight, apparent strength and fitness cling to a capsized boat for hours. Two eventually tire and succumb. The other two don't. What accounts for that difference--luck, physiology, brain chemistry, that ineffable factor we call spirit, or "the will to survive"? Were the survivors superior physical specimens, or did they simply want to live more than the victims did?

Targawnik's experience, of course, was not unique. Another Holocaust survivor with similar experiences reached a contradictory conclusion. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl--also a psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz-- describes how on one occasion at Auschwitz he volunteered for some unpleasant work to avoid being transported to a "rest camp," suspecting that those who went wouldn't come back. On another occasion, under the same set of circumstances, he chose to go to the rest camp. On the first occasion, the rest camp group was indeed sent to the gas chamber. On the second, those selected in fact did go to a rest camp while those who stayed behind resorted to cannibalism in the closing days of the war.

Frankl ascribes his own survival to fate; Targawnik believes he affected the outcome, even if unconsciously.

Certainly for those who lacked a will to survive, the Holocaust offered ample opportunity for death. But can we explain the survival of those who remained as a matter of will or instinct alone?

From events other than the Holocaust, we have learned some of the crucial aspects of group survival:

* The survival of some troops in combat and the death of others is not necessarily random. Combat troops who train as a unit, who develop close relationships, tend to maintain their morale and fight better than men who are thrown together in battle. Dr. Gregory Belenky, an Army psychiatrist who has given some thought to questions of survival, quotes the French military thinker Ardant Du Picq on this subject: "Four superior men who don't know each other will hesitate to attack a lion. Four average men who know each other, who've worked together, who have confidence in each other, will attack, and attack successfully."

* The characteristics of survival for a group--and Belenky says that examples of people surviving outside a group are rare--include one or more intelligent persons in the group, good leadership, group cohesiveness and rigorous training under conditions that approximate the reality to be confronted.

Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, now retired, survived almost eight years of captivity in a North Vietnamese prison camp despite a broken leg that never received proper treatment, solitary confinement and repeated acts of torture. Survival for Stockdale was less a physical than a mental issue--maintaining his integrity and self-respect under extreme duress.

Stockdale received the Congressional Medal of Honor, not for surviving, but for assuming command as the senior officer in the prison where he was confined and organizing resistance to the relentless pressure for collaboration maintained by the North Vietnamese. No small part of Stockdale's effort consisted of forming a group, despite the North Vietnamese efforts to keep the prisoners not only physically separated but out of communication with each other.

Stockdale sustained himself with warm memories of his wife and family, but, he said, he rationed these memories, taking care not to "squander" them.

He also laid down rules for the other prisoners, do's and don'ts, which he said made their lives simpler. Stockdale described prisoners of war craving "an organized society," pleading for a distinction between right and wrong.

The formal survival training he received prior to going to Vietnam, Stockdale said, was equivalent to a surgeon's "getting a merit badge in first aid."

When the time came, Stockdale found the resources there. Later he concluded, not surprisingly, that he had spent much of his life preparing for the test. "Stress," Stockdale said in a lecture lauding the merits of pressure, "is essential to leadership. Living with stress, knowing how to handle pressure, is necessary for survival. It is related to a man's ability to wrest control of his own destiny from the circumstances that surround him. Or, if you like, to prevail over technology . . . George Bernard Shaw said that most people who fail complain that they are the victims of circumstances. Those who get on in this world, he said, are those who go out and look for the right circumstances. And if they can't find them, they make their own."

* Discipline--whether group or self--is the constant companion of survival. What Cousins, Stockdale and a combat unit that survives have in common is more or less rigid adherence to fixed principles. "The right stuff" in this context is avoiding self-pity and not surrendering to anxiety. Belenky points out that in well-trained, elite units, people die before they break down psychologically. That response--or lack of it --reflects "adaptive" human behavior, developing characteristics that make for success and survival. The theory of evolution holds, among other things, that traits that make for survival survive and traits that don't don't, mostly because carriers of nonsurvival traits don't survive.

Ultimately, when we talk about survival, though, we have in mind those comparatively rare mind-over-matter situations where the man or woman is alone in the wilderness and endures, eating bark and squeezing water out of rocks.

The cult of survival, advocating Spartan virtues of strength, abstemious living and contempt for refinement holds the radical right in thrall with the idea that the individual is the supreme unit of human existence.

The idea that we survive because we want to appeals to us because we want to believe we are in control of our destiny. A world in which matters are out of our hands entirely is arbitrary, probably devoid of meaning and ultimately frightening.

Observing survivors like Stockdale leads us to conclude that hardship strengthens us, experience helps build something we call character, and character is what carries us through when we are tested. We are inspired by dramatic examples of self-reliance. "He who knows that power is inborn," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "that he is weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and, so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, his limbs, works miracles; just as a man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man who stands on his head."

Rousing words like Emerson's appeal to some of us. But do they appeal because they teach us something new or simply because they corroborate a comforting view of the world?

I confess that I am of two minds on the subject. I share the human impulse for a meaningful universe where we survive because we want to--because we are in control. But at bottom, I cannot suppress the feeling that as individuals we play the hands life deals us. If we are optimistic about our chances to affect our survival--and act on those expectations--that optimism, though a powerful force in our survival, is also an immutable part of our makeup. And all this talk about self-reliance and being the master of our destiny is nothing more than primal superstition, our all-too-human and entirely understandable effort to make the universe an orderly place where we can feel comfortable. And we continue to insist on an orderly world, even if we have to disregard everything we know to reach that end.