Unbreakable You

The folks at St. Martin’s Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jerry White’s book ‘I Will Not Be Broken: 5 steps to overcoming a life crisis‘.

Now, because I tend to be such a deep thinker (irony alert…) I don’t read many self-help books. I tend to think life is too complex to manage in five steps of any kind of process. But they had sent me the book, and I had some time to read…

..and I came away damn impressed. It’s not a well-written book by any means; it follows the classic self-help model of point: example, example, example, example, restate point. But the message underneath is worthwhile enough – actually, let me restate that – the message underneath is one that people ought to know and the steps are ones that actually help you get there.White was a student in Israel when he wandered into a minefield in the Golan Heights and stepped on a 15-year old landmine, losing his foot. Years later, he decided to do something for the others who has been injured as he was.

Here, in his own words, is what the book is about:

We called this effort the Landmine Survivors Network. Corralling the voices of mine “victims” around the world, we set out to ban the use of landmines and help survivors get legs and find work. This mission has sent me around the world, to the floor of the United Nations, the halls of Congress, foreign embassies, palaces, and local hospitals. Along the way, I’ve met a great many survivors from all walks of life. We’ve had very practical conversations about what works and doesn’t work as we seek to achieve success in our lives … to walk a path of growth and renewal.

With this book, I share what I’ve learned.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s not quite that simple. I believe you have to decide it will make you stronger. Experience has taught me that happy endings can never be taken for granted. They must be chosen. When I was in the hospital for six months in Israel, no one did my physical therapy for me. No one underwent the pain or the fear of six operations for me. I would have liked for someone to, maybe. I confess, the first time I was put in a wheelchair, I sat there and waited for someone to push it for me. I had just had another surgery, I was weak, in pain, exhausted. And when I looked up at my nurse, she looked down at me and laughed. “If you want to move, push.” And so I did. And I continue to do.

Whether we like it or not, personal determination is required to build resilience – to become fit for whatever the future may hold. We have to tap inner resources and develop some emotional muscle. It’s both a discipline and our responsibility.

No one can do it for us.

The good news is, we are not alone. We are surrounded by survivors who have gone before us, and their examples will help mark the way forward. Their experiences show us that with the right support, everyone can recover and thrive. As we overcome hardship, there is laughter and hope and love waiting for each of us. But it is crucial for us to want those things. Frankly, I have always craved those things. And life has treated me pretty well.

The book is a simple list of the steps he took to make sure life did treat him pretty well after he was injured, and a host of anecdotes about others who have walked a similar path.

It applies, he suggests, not only to those who undergo massive life-changing events like he did. It applies to all of us who face the typical setbacks and failures that life brings us.

My own life is fortunately free (so far) of any such Major Event – but I’ve had a host of minor ones that could have left me different, more passive, more bitter, more of a victim than I turned out to be – and so has every one of you, I’ll wager.

What did it take to thrive in spite of those? What would it take to thrive in spite of the kinds of things we all imagine on our darkest day – the death of a child, a spouse, an accident that leaves our bodies marked or incapable?

Well, I have to say that this book offers a recipe for what it would take.

And more – it offers a worldview that suggests that being tested by those things and coming out the other side can leave us better people.

The path to positive survivorship I have described in this book, with its action-oriented guidance, is drawn from the lived experience of survivors themselves, including my own. But there is real science and years of research behind it.

I think it’s important to look at how trauma inflicts its damage. Humans have suffered from injuries, conflict, and natural disasters throughout history. But it wasn’t until 1980 that we put a label on the residual effects of trauma: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Since that time, PTSD has become a popular area of research, in part because it is considered one of the only psychiatric disorders whose cause is an external event. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that research about the consequences of mass violence and war broadened to include studies of social, cultural, moral, and spiritual factors that influence our human response to trauma.

Allow me to boil down some of the research jargon. Put simply, traumatic stress – not just everyday traffic jam stress – is caused by a confrontation with helplessness and death, a complete loss of control. And it is more common than you may think. Life seems to lose meaning and predictability. Our worldview is altered. From childhood, we all develop expectations about how the world will treat us. We are influenced by our upbringing, personality, cultural norms, and belief system. After a catastrophe, new information must be thought through until the negative experience is integrated into a new world-view. This is what we call the coping process.

Thankfully, most of us will never fight in a battle, witness a massacre, or find ourselves trapped in a minefield. And many of us will muddle through adversity without ever exhibiting any dramatic psychological scars from their trauma. Why the difference? It turns out that nearly every survivor of disasters, injuries, or assaults will face either positive or negative long-term consequences. What intrigues me is that positive outcomes – growing stronger through crisis – are not at all uncommon.

Am I suggesting that disasters bring blessing? Yes, depending on how we respond to them. In many cases, crisis will catalyze unexpectedly positive outcomes. But again, this happens only if we decide it will, if we are willing to search for meaning and purpose and thereby rediscover our common humanity. It’s not the crisis itself that is important, but how we respond to it. Hundreds of survivors I have met describe how they grew stronger post-crisis.

There is a new term for it: post-traumatic growth (PTG). Also called “adversarial growth,” I am referring to the development of positive attitudes and goals that can come out of even the most ghastly experiences.’ Researchers now believe that PTSD and PTG actually result from the same mental processes. A survivor experiences predominantly negative or positive consequences depending on events and feelings they experience after the trauma. As we discussed earlier, strong and caring social support can ensure growth, whereas isolation and social antipathy will foster the symptoms of victimhood. So resilience isn’t about the depth of trauma we experience, but, rather, about what we think about our trauma – how we process our personal nightmares.

This ties closely with Dave Grossman’s analysis in ‘On Combat‘.

What kind of person bears no scars, has suffered no disappointments, and has a personality unshaped by failure? A child.

What Grossman and White are talking about is growing up, and learning to take a grown-up’s pleasure in the world as it is as yourself as you are.

The highest recommendation I can give a book comes in the form of postage – when I put it in an envelope and send it to my sons to read, it’s something I believe well worth reading.

This book is sitting on the dining table in an envelope, headed to Biggest Guy tomorrow.

Draw your own conclusion.

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