reflections on survival

This past Sunday I had the good fortune to share my story and my thoughts on survival with the good people of Northlake Unitarian Universalist ChurchRev. Marian Stewart was doing her sermon on what helps people survive in life-critical situations, and invited me speak as part of this sermon.  Marian introduced me to a fascinating book on the subject, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales.

The basic question posed by Gonzales is what things make the difference between people who survive verses those who don’t.  He cites examples of people in situations such as plane crashes, climbing accidents, getting lost in the wilderness.  The survivors he writes about include some people who manage to defy the odds in very unlikely ways. 

Some of the situations involve sudden turns of events, such as reacting to roped climbers tumbling down Mount Hood, people in rafting accidents, or pilots in trouble.  Some of the situations involve people getting lost – in several senses of the word.  They get lost geographically, as well as losing their mental map of where they are.

Preparing for this talk was an opportunity for me to consider my own situation in July of 2008.  In my case, the question was less about instantaneous response (like the climbers, rafters, or pilots), and more similar to someone getting lost.

In a number of cases, the people who survived were not the ones you’d expect to have.  They don’t necessarily have much training to prepare them, nor did they necessarily have essential equipment.  So what makes the difference?  It seems to come down to a couple of different factors. 

  • There’s the element of luck.  These are circumstances you have no control over.  How did I survive rolling under the truck’s wheel?  Why wasn’t damage caused by my TBI worse?  How was it that the fracture in my c5 vertebrae didn’t cause damage to my spinal cord (causing death or quadriplegia)?
  • The type of response from the subject often has a large bearing.  Gonzales cites examples of people taking their fate into their own hands, rather than waiting to be rescued.  This response can be determined not by the subject’s logical response (from the brain), but rather the ability of their primary emotional response (fear or despair) to be managed by their secondary emotional response.  These are the connections that allow you to govern a primary response with a subconscious, trained, logical response.

The feeling of losing your mental map is very frightening.  I’d never imagined feeling completely helpless and dependent, and I could not have imagined what having a seizure-type episode would be like.  Perhaps more profoundly, not having a clear sense of what a true prognosis was for my cognitive recovery or even my true ‘baseline’ for comparison (to measure my recovery) filled me with fear and despair.

The factor that I cited as making a huge difference for me was the gift of hope I received from those around me.  The degree of love and support I received was truly amazing, and it had the effect of redirecting my mind from fear, and towards recovery.

The miracle of hope allowed me to construct what Viktor Frankl refers to as the “will to meaning”.  In his excellent book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes how discovering one’s “will to meaning” helps them navigate from any current circumstance to their goal.  Frankl explains this as a tension that drives our search for meaning, which can be discovered in three basic ways :

"We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering."

Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning

My “will to meaning” required understanding who I was and what was most important to me.  As I lay in bed for those first months after my accident, more than anything else I wished to be a father to my children, a partner to my wife, and a strong and active person again.  Given how distant these things felt, the gift of hope was essential to me. 

I’d read and been very inspired by Frankl some years back.  It’s fair to say that I did not actively contemplate his work while laying in my hospital bed.  As I thought about the contributing factors in my recovery, “will to meaning” was best means I found to explain my motivations at that time.

For me part of this is continuing to share thoughts about this with others.  From time to time a fellow trauma survivor will stumble across one of these blog entries, and drop me a note about their experiences.  We’ll swap some thoughts and reflections, which seems to help both of us a bit – there’s definitely power in discovering commonality – particularly since trauma can make you feel very isolated.

I’m still reading through the Gonzales book, but as I progress though, it’s becoming more interesting.  In the middle chapters he talks about what’s “inside the right stuff” – what motivates people in bad situations to proactively pursue survival, to expend your valuable energy very consciously, and he talks about things that cause you to get outside of yourself.

This is where he believes things like faith and helping others come into the picture.  And consistent with Frankl’s work, this seems to fuel people’s “will to meaning”.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory…."

Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning


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