Lessons From Master Survivors

Lessons From Master Survivors


Mark Matousek has spent decades studying how obstacles morph into strengths. He shares what he’s learned from master survivors.

Being alive is a risky business. No matter who you are, where you live, or how much privilege you enjoy, insecurity is the price tag on human existence, with suffering, danger, and loss close at hand in the best of times. These mortal hazards have only intensified in our age of pandemic terror. Yet, while contemporary dangers have multiplied on many fronts, the perennial questions stalking the human race have hardly changed at all.

How can you live in a world where all things end? How can you love, knowing that you will eventually lose? How can you “turn the obstacle upside down,” as the Stoics recommended; find the opportunity in catastrophe; and use adversity as fuel for self-discovery, compassion, resilience, humor, and excellence?

I was diagnosed with a fatal illness in my late 20s, fled my life, and spent 10 years on the road as a dharma bum, seeking teachers and wisdom to prepare me for what lay ahead. I would not have chosen this experience, trust me, nor could I deny that it gave me my life. I’ve spent the past 35 years as a memoirist, seeker, teacher, and survivor, exploring this pivot between living and dying and how our greatest obstacles morph through practice into sources of strength. Suffering isn’t worthless. Bitter times bring a quality you can also use to wake up. Terror is fuel; wounding is power. Darkness carries the seeds of redemption. Authentic strength isn’t found in our armor but at the very pit of the wounds each of us manages to survive. As one widow put it to me in my book, When You’re Falling, Dive, “Strength doesn’t mean being able to stand up to anything, but being able to crawl on your belly a long time before you can stand up again.”

As COVID has taught us, crisis takes us to the brink of our limits and forces us to keep moving forward. When survivors of hardship call it a blessing, this is the paradox we’re describing. It’s why men sometimes blossom in wartime and women are often changed by childbirth. We come alive as never before on that knife blade of danger and pain. There’s vitality in facing life’s extremes, including that of your own extinction. Crisis pushes you to travel wide, fast, and deep, expands your heart, and calls forth reserves of courage you didn’t know you had, like adrenaline in the muscles of a mother saving her only child. Only you are the child, and it’s your life—the life of your own soul—that you are saving.

When I used to tell friends, half-jokingly, that almost dying saved my life, they rarely understood what I meant. I wasn’t promoting an awful disease or claiming I was glad to have it. I wasn’t pretending to be overjoyed by the prospect of an early departure. I was simply confessing an odd bit of truth that I wouldn’t have believed myself had my own life not improved so dramatically. Without the threat of mortal loss I would never have had the conviction—the fuel—to become the person I wanted to be or find my way through terrible dread to something stronger than my fear. There are new ways of seeing—of being—in a world turned upside down. There’s an art to turning poison into medicine. Every situation, short of extreme physical pain, has the potential for this transformation.

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” wrote poet Theodore Roethke.

We can use this time of uncertainty as a springboard to insight, improving how we live our lives. Outside the bounds of “normal” life, when your illusions of safety have been exploded, new abilities do indeed dawn in a person; values, intuitions, skills, perspectives that might seem unnatural, even perverse, to those who’ve led more sheltered lives.

After speaking to dozens of master survivor artists, a few common principles stand out in my mind.

Something else is also true.

This was said to me by Maria Housden, who lost her three-year-old daughter to cancer. In the depth of her grief and depression, Maria realized that as horrible as losing Hannah was, her death had also given Maria her freedom. Maria was in an abusive marriage she couldn’t leave; Hannah’s death allowed her to create her own life. One did not cancel out the other. Everything is two-sided, paradoxical, subject to mysterious inner balances we cannot always see with our wounded eyes.

The pain passes but beauty remains.

The sun really does come out tomorrow, and like it or not, we rise with the light and pull of the world. When we allow ourselves to stay open in the midst of hard change and remain mindful of not getting rigid, shutting down, and becoming unresponsive to inspiration, nature will have her way with us. Viriditas, the greening power of creation, will course through us if our wounded hearts can step aside and make space for something new to enter.

You will come out gold on the other side or you won’t come out at all.

We must allow ourselves to change. If we expect to be the same people we were before the disaster, we waste our energy and reduce our chances of survival by swimming backward against the current. Crisis is a supreme opportunity to loosen the shackles of the identity-bound ego and allow ourselves to expand, get lighter.

“When you go through the fire,” a heroic AIDS survivor told me, “you need to come out gold on the other side—let yourself be changed—or you won’t come out at all.”

Vision and sight are not the same thing.

Everything can be taken from a person except her ability to imagine her own life in the safety of her inner world. Circumstances need not rob us of agency; the imagination is its own reward, deeply connected to our spiritual life. This was said to me by a photographer who had lost his sight after a brain infection. A bacterium could take his optic nerve but it couldn’t take his imagination, his ability to dream of new ways forward.

What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.

The late poet Stanley Kunitz was 100 years old when I met him, a piston of energy, bright eyed, stooped, delighted to receive a visitor on a bright, beautiful afternoon. In a poem to his wife on her 80th birthday, Stanley wrote this confession about that effulgent energy that animates life: “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” Whether it’s the crimson red of a flower, a child’s smile, or a waterfall, all of it is driven by desire, as we are animated (or not) through our days. It’s critical to ask yourself where desire lies—it’s your battery pack for moving forward—then choose wisely how to channel that vital force.

No matter what happens, try to take it soft.

I was sitting in the Boston living room of Francis Bok, author of Escape from Slavery, listening to how he was finally able to escape from bondage after being kidnapped at the age of nine in his native Sudan. He was sitting on a blanket selling fruit from the family farm one minute, and the next he was pulled onto horseback, watching as people were bayoneted on the sidewalk. The invaders plundered the marketplace, then took him to a farm hundreds of kilometers away. They shackled him in a barn and treated him like an animal; the children of the family were allowed to abuse him. But Francis refused to allow them to shut down his love. He wouldn’t allow them to steal his dignity. When I asked him how he survived this ordeal, he said, “No matter what happens, try to take it soft.”

That’s advice we can all bear to hear these days, as the world seems to grow harder. Take it soft. Breathe and enjoy life. Love your neighbor and yourself. And obey that voice that is always inside you.

Lessons from master survivors

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