At its worst, life can be staggeringly cruel, piling misfortune upon misfortune. Family doctors, for example, will recall patients who lost their job, marriage and home the same year they were diagnosed with cancer. No doubt many struggle with such disasters, sinking into depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. Others give up altogether, or even choose suicide. But some do not. Indeed, some people seem almost unbreakable.
Practicality and Positivity
First, such people look for simple, practical solutions to the mess they’re in. And they know what works. They take care of their physical health, aware that alcohol, drugs, junk food, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, etc., are only going to make things worse. When confronted by trauma, you need to be physically as well as mentally strong. Survivors know this.
But they are practical in other ways too. For example, someone sustains horrific injuries in a car crash. Two weeks later his girlfriend leaves him. Though he does not repress his pain or grief, he focusses on practical solutions. He listens carefully to his physiotherapist and does his exercises twice a day. He then joins an online discussion forum for those who have also survived road accidents. Here he learns all about PTSD and finds both encouragement and support. He also prints off success stories by people in similar situations and reads them whenever he feels low.
Survivors prepare for the bad times. They have a good routine of healthy eating, socializing, yoga, etc., and they ready themselves for all possible outcomes. A small businessman, for example, will have a backup plan in case profits fall or the firm collapses. They also tend to have some kind of meditation practise that keeps them grounded. Mindfulness teaches you to see your thoughts not as facts but as something your brain does, something you can control. And taking control of your thoughts is crucial during a trauma.
The wheel of fortune turns, but survivors know that it will turn again so long as they are patient. Like all unbreakable people they are solution rather than problem-focussed. They do not pile up imaginary obstacles. Instead, they retain a positive, can-do spirit. Special forces operatives, for example, are trained never to slip into negative, self-pitying thought. They adapt and overcome instead: the helicopter failed to pick us up, the radio is jammed and the enemy is closing in; that is the situation, that is the reality, now how do we deal with this? They do not waste time asking who or what is to blame because they are too focussed on what can be done.
The Absence of Self-Pity
This practical, positive outlook is closely related to another common trait– the absence of self-pity. Self-pity eats up time and energy. It also paralyzes you. Life is hard on everyone, but on those who give up it is merciless. The individual consumed with self-pity will not bother to take care of their health. What’s the point? If the universe has got it in for you personally, it doesn’t really matter what you do.
And this absence of self-pity also makes them more loveable and sympathetic. Who do you most want to hug, the cancer patient full of bitterness and self-pity, or the cancer patient with courage and dignity? Just like hatred, self-pity keeps you locked up inside yourself. And people who are locked up inside themselves are difficult to reach. This is unfortunate, since even the strongest need people to turn to at moments of crisis. When someone proves unbreakable, they probably have a network of loving and supportive friends.
They also tend to be careful who they befriend. Fill your life with frightened, broken, negative people and you will feel worse. Surround yourself with joyful, brave, kind, positive people, however, and their outlook will rub off. You will feed off their energy and begin to see the world through their eyes.
Realism Without Cynicism
The unbreakable are realists. If a realist is diagnosed with cancer, for example, he would be more likely to think “why not me?” than to feel hard done by. Human beings are a product of evolution, a process without a point or goal. Evolution is driven by random mutation. If the new traits help a creature survive, those traits spread, eventually leading to a new species. And this only occurs because nature is so mercilessly cruel. Realists know this. They know that in our natural, hunter-gatherer state, we were lucky to reach 40. Most of us died from infections or animal attacks long before middle-age.
And they know how much suffering goes on around them. They never forget a neighbor who died of breast cancer when her child was just learning to walk, or the little boy in their class at school who was killed by a drunk driver. Because they remember such things, they never feel victimized or singled out by fate. They are psychologically prepared in other words. Realists know that life is full of change. Thus they tend not to be carried away by success nor cast down by failure. Always, the words “this too shall pass” echo through their mind.
However, they manage to walk the tightrope between cynicism and despair. Realism is often confused with cynicism. In fact, people who hate their life, or feel a sense of despair at the world, do not cope well. Their fight, or inner resistance, quickly gives way. Someone can look reality full in the face, even conclude that life is basically tragic, and yet enjoy each day and feel glad to be alive.
The Will to Be Happy
Though such people know how fragile and vulnerable we are, they do not give up. They love life and are determined to enjoy it. They have a “will to happiness,” which makes them resent depression; when it descends, they fight back. They look for an exit. Others wallow in their misery and despair, some even delight in it.
Because of this, survivors can always see a light at the end of the tunnel. They take pleasure not only in the big joys but in the trivial, and they do not forget those pleasures when life knocks them down. This is much harder than it sounds. The dreadful thing about depression is the way it distorts one’s view of the world. Imagine waking one morning, looking at something you adore, like a favorite painting, and feeling nothing but blank emptiness. Depression is like seeing the world through a pair of thick, dark glasses. The resilient fight this. They never forget what it is like to be happy, nor do they lose hope of feeling that way again.
For example, someone is nursing her husband through the final stages of dementia. Her only child has recently married, but his wife is rude, cold and distant. On top of that her best friend recently committed suicide. Never has she felt so alone. In her 20s, she visited India and watched the sun set on the Ganges. As it did, she felt a wonderful sense of peace. When her husband has gone, she plans to return. This is her focus and goal. When the loneliness and grief overwhelm her, she imagines herself sitting there as the light plays on the water. Survivors of brutal captivity, such as P.O.W.s, often use such positive visualization. When close to giving up, they imagine reading their daughter a bedtime story, drinking a cold beer in their favorite bar, or walking through local woodland on a crisp, frosty morning.
Seeing the Ego in a Broader Context
The more wrapped up you are in yourself, the harder life becomes. The strongest people have a deeper, richer identity than their narrow little ego. For some it is their children, for others a political struggle (think of the incredible suffering people endure when fighting to liberate an oppressed nation or resist an invader). Whatever it may be, they are not limited to their narrow, individual self.
The obvious example is religion. People with a strong faith often derive immense comfort and strength from it. But even those with no faith can find something similar in science and nature. The point is to make your peace with the universe. Soldiers face battle more courageously once they have settled life’s big questions and made such a peace. People are doing something similar when they shrug and reflect “ah well, a hundred years from now none of this will matter.”
The resilient can be inspiring, but they also have much to teach. And by observing and imitating them, we could all grow stronger.