Suddenly, inexplicably, life accidents strike without warning. A long-distance runner discovers the tingling in her muscles is multiple sclerosis. A writer at the peak of her creative power sustains a head injury and, like a child, must learn to read all over again. A beautiful actress, frequently described as a Hollywood siren, undergoes a double mastectomy. The "perfect marriage" of a famous advice columnist disintegrates in public view, and for the first time she has no answers. The face of a stunning young model is slashed by assailants. A gifted musician is pushed beneath a subway train and loses a hand.
If these life accidents seem particularly cruel, it is because they are, evidence of fate's maliciousness. More often than any of us would like to admit, life has a way of hitting us where it hurts the most.
The term "life accident" was first coined by Gail Sheehy in her book Pathfinders, the sequel to her landmark (and bestselling) examination of anticipatory adult crises, Passages. After doing for grown-ups what Gesell and Spock did for children -- namely, pigeonholing predictable psychological patterns throughout adulthood -- Sheehy went on to explore "another kind of life crisis that dramatically influences the kind of people we turn out to be." These are the "unpredictable crises, the life accidents we are powerless to predict or prevent."
"To paraphrase John Lennon," says Sheehy, "life's accidents are what happen to us while we are making other plans."
Unfortunately, Sheehy discovered in the course of writing her books, "most people do not negotiate either predictable passages, especially the later ones, or life accidents successfully." Those individuals who not only survive, but can will themselves to benefit from adversity, become what Sheehy calls "pathfinders": real-life champions who "by refusing to go under in the onslaught of a life accident" emerge victorious.
Sheehy's latest book, Spirit of Survival (William Morrow), takes the exploration of the victorious personality even further by tracing the harrowing journey of a young and quite extraordinary Cambodian child named Mohm Phat who lived through the genocidal regime of Pol Pot.
Mohm was 6 years old when she and her family joined millions of other Cambodians who were forced to exchange their comfortable Phnom Penh homes for the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge countryside. During this time her entire family, with the possible exception of a brother, died. Somehow Mohm managed to survive, running barefoot through the jungle by day, learning from observing monkeys which fruits she could eat to stay alive, digging into the dirt at night to sleep until it was time to run again. Eventually Mohm crossed the border into Thailand, where Sheehy met her in 1981 at a refugee camp. Nine months later Mohm arrived in America, and at the age of 12 she became Sheehy's adopted daughter.
Sheehy is the first to admit that Mohm's dramatic story "is so incredible, we can't find any comparable stories in American life." But, she stresses, "Mohm is more than an exotic survivor. Although her tribulations were staggering, her story offers lessons that we all can apply to everyday misfortunes. The human spirit has resources to prevail over tremendous adversity, to heal itself and to emerge strengthened. By reminding us of that power to prevail, Mohm is more than a survivor. She is hope."
Sheehy says that while most Americans have been spared direct experience with war or the violent political upheavals common to two-thirds of the rest of the world, many of us are "survivors of more common life accidents: an absent or alcoholic parent, a bitter divorce, a child gone haywire, crushing debt, a career crash, serious illness or paralysis by drugs. These occurrences, too, can pitch a person into a dark tunnel from which there appears to be no escape. More and more, the strategems used by ordinary people to survive such a period of personal upheaval resemble the techniques resorted to by the classic survivor."
The classic survivor, she explains, is forced to endure a prolonged state of pain, privation, uncertainty or fear. "Time loses all its comforting boundaries, and there is no concrete reason to hope for deliverance, yet the person endures."
By the combination of a "texture of personality and tenacity of action" the victorious personality forges "a gallant stand against seemingly insuperable odds." As Sheehy followed, step by step, the trail of one victorious child, she began to see that Mohm's path through pain and loss, shame and anger was "the same spiral traveled by survivors from the Old Testament and The Odyssey to Moby Dick."
Sheehy believes this mythic narrative of survival has four common phases. "First is the uprooting from 'home' (or family, security or good health). Next, one is cast off into wilderness (either external or internal) where a confrontation with danger, uncertainty or evil batters previous beliefs. At the end of one's wanderings there awaits the reconciliation with a new and larger reality, and with one's own renewed self. Finally, triumphantly, there is the return to home -- but return with a difference."
According to Sheehy the victorious personality -- "someone who has met an accident or a trauma or adversity and mastered it" -- has certain recognizable traits, which include: "Plasticity, that is the ability to bend on the outside to circumstances one can't control or change for a period of time, while not forfeiting an inner conviction of one's reason for being. In fact that conviction usually grows stronger."
Another aspect of the victorious personality is self-trust. "During a period of real adversity, often you're thrown back on your own resources and begin to set your own objectives and own goals quite apart from other people, or in spite of them." Other elements of the victorious personality include a reliance on intuition, the ability to control emotions and a sense of humor.
"But for a long-term survivor it is vital to maintain some secret inner life," says Sheehy. This secret inner life can range from the ability to fantasize to the internal anchor of a private or family myth that allows one to feel superior. Frequently this secret inner life manifests as faith: faith in God and in oneself, a sense of both survival and worship blended together.
"I thought Mohm had a very interesting concept in that regard. She told me that she wasn't able to express her religion or worship externally in any way. That was a death warrant. So she had to find her own inner belief system and her own sense of divine companionship, and it grew stronger because it was secret."
Finally Sheehy says Mohm came to believe what theologians and philosophers have for centuries defined as "faith in action": "At night she could go to sleep in God's hand, but at daybreak, the minute the sun rose, she had to take over and survive on her own."
But why do life accidents break some people and strengthen others? What is there about the temperament of one who succumbs to trauma and the one who emerges strengthened and victorious? And finally, can anyone learn the skills that will make one a survivor?
For the last several years Rabbi Harold Kushner -- like the Old Testament's Jacob -- has been wrestling with God for the answers to some of man's biggest questions. The first one -- "Why me?" -- was addressed in his bestselling When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon), written after his 14-year-old son Aaron's death from a rare and incurable illness. Kushner says he wrote this book (which has been translated into 10 languages, with two million copies in print) "to help people cope with the kind of shattering tragedy that divides a person's life in two: before and after that terrible moment . . . You cannot help dealing with it, trying to figure out how your life will be different because of it."
More recently, Kushner has tackled the search for a meaningful life in his sequel, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough (Summit Books), and he's concluded that "trying to find one Big Answer to the problem of living is like trying to eat one Big Meal so that you will never have to worry about being hungry again. There is no Answer, but there are answers."
As to why some people collapse under the trauma of life accidents and others overcome them, Kushner thinks the issue rests on self-esteem. "Very often people ask me if religious people have an easier job of dealing with tragedy than nonreligious people do. My experience has been that it doesn't really make that much difference. What makes the real difference is self-esteem. It's not simply faith in God. It's equally important to have faith in yourself."
Kushner believes there are two different types of faith in the face of adversity. "There's one kind of faith which leads to serenity -- ultimately God will make this turn out all right; or ultimately things will work out to God's purposes.
"Then there's an alternative kind of faith that is not the sense that God will make everything turn out all right, rather, it's the belief God will give me qualities of courage and inventiveness so that I will have the power to overcome this."
This second kind of faith, Kushner says, legitimizes the anger that people feel at the unfairness of their pain or loss ("which I interpret as God's anger at injustice reflected through me") while acknowledging the reality of evil in the world. When life accidents occur, "faith has to be translated into action. Faith is not just what you believe, it's how you live differently because of it."
Both Kushner and Sheehy believe that survivor skills can be learned only through experiencing trauma firsthand. Says Sheehy: "It's not an abstract concept. I think you have to learn it in action." But she adds, "To be tested is good. The challenged life may be the best therapist."
And suffering is an inevitable thread in the tapestry of human experience. "I don't envy people who come into their forties without ever undergoing a serious illness, bereavement or failure," says Kushner, "because I know that sooner or later one will come their way and I worry that they won't be able to handle it, never having had to do it before. The language of grief, the language of feeling anything, is like all languages. We learn them better when we are young."
If we are to become survivors of life accidents, says Kushner, ultimately we must recognize, acknowledge and accept that "pain is a part of being alive.
"Most of all, we have to learn to trust our own capacities to endure pain. We can endure much more than we think we can . . . Don't deny it, don't be overwhelmed by it. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there."