Co-written by Lee Kravetz.
Some sobering stats to start your day: this year roughly 13 million people will be diagnosed with cancer, 10 million people will be affected by traumatic brain injuries and 50 million people will survive car wrecks. By bringing up these statistics, which cover only a portion of the catastrophes that befall people every day, we aren’t trying to scare anyone. We simply want to call attention to the notion that trauma is, in many ways, a fact of life.
At some point in our lives, the majority of us will face the task of recovering, rebuilding, and rebounding from adversity, whether large or small.
And in rare cases, survivors of tragedy do more than recover: they dramatically and positively alter their lives. We call these people supersurvivors.
While there's nothing inherently positive about atrocities, violence, disasters, or illness, and a lot of people suffer mightily from these events, it's also true that dramatic resilience can occur for ordinary people. Over the past three years, we’ve conducted more than 100 interviews with such individuals.
In our book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, we tell the stories of 17 of these extraordinary people. Whether it’s a leukemia sufferer who goes on to win an Olympic Gold Medal, a young man who permanently loses his sight and ends up being the first to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat, or a woman who survives genocide in Rwanda to eventually become an Obama appointee, supersurvivors show us what’s possible in the wake of tragedy. They teach us that it's possible to peer into the face of suffering and somehow emerge fundamentally changed, often with an ability to impact the world in previously unimagined ways.
Their stories often coincide with what research shows are ways to prepare ourselves not only to bounce back after a trauma or tragedy, but to actually “bounce forward.” But you don’t have to have suffered a trauma to cultivate these qualities in yourself, which numerous studies show are associated with living a happier, more fulfilling life generally.
So why not start now?
1. Practice grounded hope.
The supersurvivors we’ve interviewed practice something we’ve come to call "Grounded Hope." It’s an approach to life that’s more realistic than simple positive thinking, yet more positive than pessimism. This view of hope builds on the Hope Theory developed by University of Kansas positive psychology researcher C. R. Snyder.
The “grounded” part of Grounded Hope refers to being grounded in a realistic understanding of one’s life and oneself. Supersurvivors avoid the temptation to paint a smiley face over what has happened to them, to deny it or distort it to make themselves feel better temporarily. Instead, they bravely look reality in the face and say, “Yes, I’ve just lost my leg in accident,” or “Yes, I’m only 25 years old and have been diagnosed with breast cancer."
The power in this approach is that by seeing the situation clearly, without distorting it or trying to make it seem better than it is, it’s possible to work towards recovery.
But supersurvivors don’t stop there. Next, they ask the incredibly hopeful and forward-looking question: “Given what’s happened to me, what am I going to do about it? How can I build a better life on top of it?” They nurture confidence in their ability to plot out what happens next. They set goals for themselves and find sources of motivation to pursue those goals. This is the “hope” part of Grounded Hope.
In fact, research shows that it’s even healthy to have slight overconfidence that you can control your life through your own efforts. The great thing is, this overblown sense of confidence might not be overblown for long, because it can actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and give you the motivation to try new things and possibly actually achieve them.
2. Practice future-focused forgiveness.
One of the supersurvivors we met was Aaron Acharya, whose entire village in Bhutan was expelled and forced into U.N. refugee camps in the late 1980’s as part of a campaign of discriminatory citizenship. During this ordeal, Aaron was arrested and watched as officials tortured his father.
Later, while in one of the U.N. camps, he learned that one of the very citizen soldiers responsible for these crimes was now living nearby. By knowing where the man was, Aaron was presented with the rare opportunity to exact violent revenge. Aaron now credits his eventual supersurvivorship — his later immigration to the United States and his founding of a nonprofit organization that has helped thousands of refugees — to the fact that he didn’t seek retribution in that moment. Instead, he says he forgave what had happened, and this freed him from being shackled to the anger of the past.
Forgiveness can be a powerful way to build a better future for oneself. Research shows that, in general, practicing greater forgiveness tends to be associate with greater personal well-being, including lower levels of depression and physical health complaints as well as higher levels of life satisfaction, whereas lack of forgiveness (which sometimes takes the form of grudge holding) tends to be associated with higher rates of negative emotions and health difficulties. Many of the supersurvivors we met talked about the power of forgiveness in their own lives. But forgiveness may not be exactly what most of us think it is.
So what is true forgiveness?
We posed the question to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African anti-apartheid leader and one of the world’s foremost experts on political forgiveness. “No one has the right to tell someone who has suffered that he must forgive,” Tutu said. “No, we have to enter into the anguish of the one who has been made to suffer, to ameliorate and understand and sympathize with their suffering.”
Tutu is giving voice to what many survivors and experts agree is true. There should never be an obligation to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t about giving the gift of clemency to the perpetrators. In fact, the perpetrator doesn’t even necessarily have to know you’ve practiced forgiveness. It’s also not about forgetting the past.
Rather, it’s about giving a gift to ourselves.
It’s saying, “Yes the past is important, but I can’t change it,” and giving ourselves permission to let go of the anger, resentment, and pain that shackles us to that past. We’re then able to look forward to create a better future.
3. Notice and embrace choices.
Despite their incredible accomplishments, the supersurvivors we interviewed often insisted that we make it clear that they are ordinary people, just like the rest of us. They see themselves as doing what anyone else would have done in their situations: making the best choices possible given what life has thrown at them. For them, it was their choices that helped them to rise up after trauma and claim the future they wanted for themselves.
The brutal truth is that trauma often closes off some choices to us. When one supersurvivor, Alan Lock, lost his vision at the age of 24 and was discharged from the Royal Navy, he realized that life as an officer simply wasn’t possible for him anymore.
But, trauma also can make us aware of other choices we may not previously have realized we had. Alan’s crisis presented him with new choices, some of which he embraced. Alan became the first registered blind person ever to row a boat across the Atlantic Ocean and to trek on foot to the South Pole, setting world records.
According to two decades of research, on average 50 to 80 percent of people who have lived through trauma say they’ve grown in some way, even though they’ve also suffered. Even in the midst of pain, they’ve opened up to and embraced new choices. This is an incredible testament to the power of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Trauma closes off certain choices in our lives, yet when we look at the situation with our eyes fully open, we also may see the potential for new possibilities.
That gives all of us, when we encounter crises in our own lives, the opportunity to be supersurvivors.