There’s no magic pill you can take to bounce back from tragedy. But there are stories of people who’ve bounced forward to great things. Call them supersurvivors.
I flung open the kitchen cabinets and lobbed dish after dish into the trash. Dinner plates, saucers, soup bowls, and coffee mugs clanked and shattered. I bagged our wall art, DVDs, floor rugs, sofa pillows, followed by the sofa itself. I hoisted trash bags to the street corner where, within the hour, they would probably be picked clean by the men from the SRO next door. On a return trip from dragging the mattress to the curb, I ran into the building’s resident palm reader standing in the lobby in her pink bathrobe and holding a stack of mail.
“I didn’t know anyone was moving out,” she said.
“Just refurbishing,” I said.
But I was doing more than refreshing my apartment; I was overhauling my life.
A month earlier my oncologist informed me that, after a long year of chemotherapy, I was cancer-free. This meant that I’d likely survived the cancer that had appeared in my blood and in my right lung. My first thought was simply I’m lucky to be alive, followed by, Now it’s time to rebuild my life ... but how? I was 31 years old.
Prior to undergoing treatment for cancer, I worked in television and book publicity. I lived in Manhattan, owned a small co-op on the Upper West Side with my wife, and had a relatively rewarding life. Yet after my cancer experience, I found myself questioning my past choices, from career to where I lived—even the way I’d reasoned through decisions. The results had been fulfilling, but now I was willing to forgo conventional ideals of success and do something with my life that was more true to myself. I wasn’t certain what this would be, but it began with cleaning house.
Then I tried to convince my wife that we should sell our apartment, leave Manhattan, and move back to San Francisco, where we’d met. Considering how I’d pretty much thrown away all of our possessions, up until now she’d been fairly patient with me. But why, she wanted to know, couldn’t I change within the context of our lives together? I wanted her to understand my need to alter my life (and get as far away from the cancer experience as possible). She didn't really, but she agreed to put the co-op on the market in late summer and see what would happen.
In September 2008, I quit my job and abandoned my lucrative decade-long career. We moved into a small apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District and began to build this new life.
One fall morning I was having brunch with a friend, talking to her about how I was grappling with what to do with my life. She told me about a friend who’d been in a similar situation and was doing some remarkable things. Her friend’s name was Asha Mevlana. She was a breast cancer survivor who, in remission, re-evaluated her priorities and left a high-paying business career to focus on playing music. She became an electric violinist. Incredibly, almost overnight, she went from playing clubs on the Sunset Strip to joining the Tonight Show band, touring with Gnarls Barkley and Alanis Morissette, and landing a major recording deal with Universal Records.
When Asha and I first talked over Skype, I told her my story and asked about hers. I wanted to know how she’d chosen her post-trauma path and had been so successful in it. Asha smiled. What I read in it was: Great question. I have no idea. Why don’t you find out?
Life after cancer was not shaping up to be easy for me. It was wonderful to be back in San Francisco, but our first few months also presented a number of unexpected challenges. Moving away from New York meant my wife had to leave her high-powered finance job and find work; she was still knocking on doors. The tiniest disagreements became full-blown arguments, rife with displaced resentment over a list of well-earned grievances. I’d found a job—a high-stress position at a small firm—and hated it. I’d nearly walked out dozens of times. Happiness remained elusive for both of us. We could pin it on a million things, but it really came down to one: the fact that my trauma experience wouldn’t stay buried.
I had to wonder if anyone’s did—not just after cancer but after catastrophic events more broadly, from natural disasters to wartime violence to damaging accidents. Asha Mevlana not only bounced back, she seemed to bounce forward, changing her life in remarkable ways as a result of surviving. If there was a secret to reapproaching living like she had, I needed to find it.
I began to amass a list of survivors’ names and their unique survival stories. And I enrolled at Santa Clara to get my master’s in counseling psychology. When I was undergoing cancer treatment, I realized that I wanted to do more to help people, and psychology seemed like a good fit. In the graduate program, I advocated turning my curiosity about resilience into an independent research project and worked with David Feldman, one of the foremost experts on hope therapy, as my academic advisor. Our work together blossomed into a friendship and collaboration; we would spend the next four years striving to understand how people approach life after suffering a major assault on their physical and emotional selves.
We set out to find people who brought these ideas to life. We followed leads, connecting with hundreds of survivors across the globe. No two stories were the same. Experiences varied dramatically from person to person. But there was commonality: a psychological phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.
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. According to two decades of research from more than a dozen researchers, 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. Trauma closes off certain choices in our lives, yet when we look at the situation with eyes wide open, we also may see the potential for new possibilities. We came to call these people supersurvivors, those who emerge from suffering fundamentally changed, often with an ability to affect the world in previously unimagined ways.
For instance, when Alan Lock lost his vision due to macular degeneration, he realized that his lifelong dream of a career in the Royal Navy simply was gone. Alan’s crisis presented him with new choices, some of which he embraced. Several years later, Alan became the first registered blind person ever to row a boat across the Atlantic Ocean.
Aaron Acharya suffered trauma at the hands of his countrymen: His entire village in Bhutan was expelled and forced into U.N. refugee camps in the late 1980s as part of a campaign of discriminatory citizenship. Aaron would eventually leave, pursuing a degree in engineering to found one of the most influential anti-torture organizations in the world. He did this through an extraordinary ability to forgive his perpetrators.
We met with a New Orleans artist who, reeling from a loved one’s death, helped restore post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans; a witness to a brutal Irish Republican Army killing who later won a Nobel Peace Prize; a car crash survivor and amputee who became one of Hollywood’s most successful stunt actors; a Rwandan genocide survivor who went on to work with President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. The project led to phone and email conversations with people ranging from Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel to filmmaker John Carpenter and MythBusters host Adam Savage.
Through the stories—and the decades of research that support them—we learned that positive thinking has little to do with resilience. Rather, a practice called grounded hope offers an approach that’s more realistic than simple positive thinking yet more positive than pessimism. We found that reflecting on one’s death can lead to a better life; that contrary to popular belief, the listlessness we feel after our worldview shatters can be beneficial; and that certain delusions can be healthy.
We collected these stories in a book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success (HarperCollins, 2014). The book explores not only the psychology behind remarkable stories of survival and resilience, it also was an integral part of my own journey to figure out a meaningful life after my trauma. Today, that life includes being a father of two children and working as a psychotherapist. Although I still measure all of my successes and failures against my trauma—I sometimes wonder if that will ever change—I’ve come to embrace the knowledge that life is short and that suffering can lead to asking oneself an incredibly hopeful and forward-looking question: Given what happened to me, how can I build a better life on top of it?