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Why Do We Choose To Survive After Tragedy?

TEDxMidwest Pope Francis Calls For ‘Revolution Of Tenderness’ In Surprise TED Talk

Why did my brother warn me against reading this book? It’s so good! I thought to myself, as I quickly devoured the pages of JoJo Moyes bestseller titled Me Before You. It was an uplifting tale about a young man who rediscovers love and laughter after a devastating spinal cord injury left him in a dangerous pool of depression. Finding myself at times in my own, albeit more shallow, pool of depression, I knew this story was exactly what I needed to remind me that I could find meaning in my life after my stroke.

As I continued reading, anticipating the feel-good happy ending with a girl saving the boy’s life with the power of love, my heart began to quicken. But as I flipped the page, confusion began to silence the hopeless romantic inside of me. Wait…what’s going on?! I felt my chest tighten as my euphoria began to slip away, rushing away from me with every labored breath. NO, this isn’t supposed to be happening! I almost yelled aloud as hot tears began to sting my eyes and cloud my vision, realizing the reason for my brother’s prudence.

Unconditional support from his family, requited and irresistible love from a woman, financial stability, laughter, adventure – it all wasn’t enough for him. Spoiler alert: He chooses to end his life through assisted suicide. He chooses to die rather than to live a life with a disability. My heart broke for the loved ones he had left behind, and my heart broke for me – knowing that my tears would soon lead to dark thoughts and terrifying nightmares that would once again find their footing in my soul.

Once again, I found myself wondering, what makes life worth living? What makes life worth surviving? Before my stroke, these questions would have been the unwelcome villains in my fairytale-like world. The meaning I saw and felt in my life every single day was undeniable. My charmed world – accented by extraordinary friends, bursting with big dreams, and topped off with a whole lot of love – would have thrown any storybook princess into a fit of reality show-worthy jealous rage. But now, these questions haunted my every moment, and without a sufficient answer, I had no way of quieting them.

While I have made some tremendous progress in rehabilitation over the past several years, my life is still a struggle. It is not easy living in this body, in this life. My life is a constant circus of disabling circumstances and suffocating limitations – unyielding boundaries restricting who and what I can be, when the sky used to be my only limit. I have to accept that I rarely get to see my friends anymore, and even when I do, I feel inadequate. I have to accept my nearly complete dependence on, and burden to, every person around me for the foreseeable future, and possibly, the rest of my life. I have to accept that I will have to pursue a career I’m not passionate about but is conducive to my physical limitations. Worst of all, I have to accept the real possibility that I’ll never find love – that I’ll never get to have a wedding or raise a family of my own.

These are harsh realities, the bitterest of pills, and I’m being forced to swallow every last bit of it. The chance to end all of this, to escape this limited life I’m forced to accept – I would be lying if I said that wasn’t a tad tempting. I can’t find too much to believe in nowadays. I guess I believe, wholeheartedly, that Rory will end up with Jess in the Gilmore Girls re-revival, but not even that is guaranteed.

I do believe in three simple, yet powerful things, the antidotes to the poison – my mother, my father, and my brother – and honestly, that’s enough for me. But I used to live for more. I used to dream of more and believe in more. Paul Kalanithi stated in his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, “Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany—a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters—and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward.” I think this is a universal feeling for anyone going through a hard time, but how, and more importantly, why do we choose to find a new path forward?

In a TED talk by Aimee Mullins, Paralympian, model and actress, she says that all society asks of any one person is to be of use, to contribute in some way. What if the young man in the novel had chosen to survive? He might have had to swallow a hell of a lot of pride and ego to accept his new dependent life, but he would have found his use – his purpose – in being there for his family, in planning a future with his new lady, or even in a career that made use of his savvy intellect and charm. Maybe, a life lived with a purpose is a life worth living. And a life that’s able to find its purpose is a life worth surviving – if only he had given his new life a chance.

Mullins goes on to add a piece about the act of survival that’s often overlooked. She says, “There’s evidence that Neanderthals, 60,000 years ago, carried their elderly and those with serious physical injury, and perhaps it’s because the life experience of survival of these people proved of value to the community.” It’s as if the insight gained by merely surviving a situation and enduring the pain that comes with it is rare, and powerful. In my experience, I’ve discovered that people who have survived their own personal tragedy treat me with a type of incredible empathy that cannot be taught, only felt. It’s as if their survival has given them some deeper knowledge and understanding of the world, of people, and of adversity.

I haven’t found my purpose yet, but I’m willing to keep searching, and that is the crucial difference. Because of their circumstances or because of their pain, some aren’t willing or able to keep searching, and that is heartbreaking but understandable in its own way. But, I want to give this new life a chance. I want to forge a new path forward. I want to not only survive this, but thrive in spite of this. Some may say it’s because of a survival instinct, some may say it’s because of an inner resilience and tenacity, but one thing is for sure: I want to give this life a chance to surprise me, but in a good way this time. It owes me. Whether it’s because of my family’s support, my progress in physical therapy, or even my constant distraction by Rafa Nadal’s athletic prowess on the Tennis Channel, I’ve managed to hold on to the hope that my life can be good again.

And maybe, I will be a stronger person, with something unique to offer the world because I chose to survive. Whether it’s insights expressed through my writing or compassion shared with my patients or clients in a future career, there may be wisdom to be gained and shared from the mere act of surviving. I think that maybe, my survival will give me my purpose, and my purpose will make my survival, undeniable.

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