Being a man is not about how tough you are, it’s about how you control the difficult situations that life confronts you with.
I Unusual people in situations of crisis and danger
Survivability is a human phenomenon, but it seems we only find this quality in 10% of the population.
Al Siebert PhD studied the subject in The Survivor Personality: Why Some People are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties… and How You Can Be, Too.
When he was a paratrooper in Korea in 1953, in Airborne Division 503, he remembers meeting survivors from Parachute Unit 11. This unit had taken part in the most difficult battles, so much so that only one soldier in ten remained alive. Few people attributed these soldiers’ survival to luck, coincidence, or other circumstantial reasons. Siebert became interested in the survivors’ personality structure. He was fascinated by characteristics he found common to most of them.
He discovered that psychologists and psychiatrists did not know much about people who deal very well with pressure. And the survivors did not fit any existing psychological category. So, he read many autobiographies and interviewed hundreds of people: survivors of concentration camps, prisoners of war, veterans of the Vietnam War. People who had survived illness such as cancer, or head injuries. Men and women who had survived rape or abuse, or alcoholism and other addictions. Parents of children who were murdered, people who were bankrupted, people who had been fired, and so on.
He defined his subjects as people who had an incredible ability to survive difficult crises, who regained their emotional balance, and who, moreover, became stronger after the crisis.
One of the questions about this phenomenon is whether survivability is inborn or acquired. Siebert had a definite answer: some people are born with a natural talent for survival. Others have to work hard on it, consciously.
People who are used to acting, thinking, and feeling according to instructions, do not cope with the unpredicted challenges of life with the same success as those who have developed these abilities by themselves.
He discovered in them several characteristics. They have what could be called “a relaxed awareness,” a quiet consciousness that might look half sleepy, but it allows them to live in “the quiet eye of the storm” and from there to observe what is happening all around them. This “relaxed awareness” is a sign of quietness in the world of emotions. In general, the more people’s emotions are in turmoil because of a crisis, the more their consciousness shrinks and becomes dim.
Perhaps “relaxed awareness” really means alpha waves, or a kind of radar which at all times is searching around for threats, while the person remains relaxed. This combination of opposite qualities is one of many such combinations in the survivor’s character:
Seriousness and humor.
Toughness and gentleness.
Diligence and laziness.
Introversion and ability to communicate.
In many cases, pessimism and optimism (being ready for the worst and hoping for the best).
Involvement and disconnection.
Survivors have an incredible ability to rise from the ashes of their crisis. Yet, theoretically speaking, many psychologists will perceive such contradictory and polarized opposites as likely to cause a person to be paralyzed. But this is not the case for survivors.
It seems that these polarities allow them a large variety of possible responses and, generally, flexibility, or an ability to adjust. These polarities allow survivors to not be fixed on just one frequency. They can behave in one way, but when the situation changes, in completely the opposite way. They can adapt better to changing circumstances than people who are only this way or that way.
These paradoxical qualities are vital for the survival way of life, and the longer the list of such polarities, the better people cope. And again, it is not only that they cope with difficult situations, but they get stronger because of them.
Socially they are nonconformists, or outsiders. They do not feel the need to belong to a group, and they have no problem with the fact that they see and think differently from others.
Another typical trait is a kind of sixth sense that signals to them how things should be when all is OK. When they feel a deviation from the normal dynamic, they activate their emergency programming.
They are unprejudiced, tend to accept people as they are.
Curiosity is one of their most important characteristics, as it causes them to find out to what extent they can stretch their borders. It is a curiosity which stems from nonconformity. When they meet a certain rule, they might break it just to see where it would lead.
Another surprising characteristic is their empathy and humanity. It seems they are not driven by ego. They are attentive to other people, to their needs, even when they themselves are experiencing great difficulty. In situations of uncertainty and threat, they have the tendency to make the state of affairs safer for others.
Another survivor quality is synergic ability (as the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict has pointed out). Synergy is defined as an integrated activity of opposites, which together create a result greater than the sum total of their separate activities.
In fact, all children go through some natural learning process that could make them become survivors, but this process is disrupted when parents and teachers try to turn them into “good children.” The challenge for potential survivors is how to free themselves from parents’ and teachers’ authority, from the dictates that become, later, inner prohibitions, which then function as unseen emotional limitations. During childhood they learn that it is important to get on and succeed in society. This means they have to give up natural potential abilities so as to learn behaviors and responses that will help them acquire a high position in the social hierarchy.
But it appears that overtraining and instruction by teachers and parents will distance children from their inborn ability to learn independently and develop survival ability.
The independent learning of the future survivor is motivated and guided by questions. But in schools the learning of answers is considered more important than the ability to ask questions. And this is the difference between most people and the 10% survivors, for they are not easily satisfied by convenient or technical answers. They possess a kind of inner recognition of the real answer to their question, and no substitute for a real answer will satisfy them. It has to feel right, and they can differentiate between the one appropriate answer and the substitutes.
In regular schools you learn first and then question, but for the survivors it happens in the reverse order: first they question and then they learn the lesson.
Most parents want their children to be decent, likeable, and responsible. In other words, they want “good children.” But these efforts to create “good children” create adults who cannot cope with unexpected and difficult situations in life. The greatest hindrance to becoming a survivor is being brought up to be “good.” Someone educated in the conventional way is lost, once they are out of the ordered environment in which they grew up and experiencing unexpected difficulties or crises.
In everyday life, survivors seem slow or nonchalant, with little involvement in what is happening around them. But if there is a serious problem, they are immediately present, with all their might.
They experience problems as an incentive for a change of direction, not as potential failure.
Failure, and survivors’ attitude towards it, constitutes an important ingredient in their personality, it would seem. Research by Carol Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb suggests that the common denominator, in most cases, is the experience of a great failure.
II The non-survivors.
When there is a situation of threat, danger or crisis, people generally tend to get into one of the following states:
Some become paralyzed.
Others panic (and therefore behave in a way which could endanger them further).
Some become emotional and believe that the end, or defeat, is near.
In contrast to these reactions, survivors can accept that the situation might be fatal, but they do not lose their cool, and usually try to do something about it.
And survivors have a sense of humanity and empathize with others in the same or similar situations.
How do survivors prepare themselves in extreme, emergency situations?
The way in which they ask themselves questions is distinctive.
The non-survivor majority hardly ask questions at all in emergency situations since mostly they are in a state of shock. But if they do have questions they are of the following sort: Why is this happening to me? What have I done to deserve this? Whose fault is it? What is wrong with me, that I somehow invite these things into my life? What’s the point of fighting (since all is lost)?
In contrast, the survivor asks completely different questions: What’s happening, and what isn’t happening? What do I need to do now? What should I choose from the variety of the options in front of me? How much time do I have for response? Should I act or refrain from acting? What are others with me in this situation doing, or not doing, and why? How serious is the emergency? Is anyone in need of help and support?
Generally, survivors are alert, aware, empathic, and able to recognize the patterns in their situation. All of this signifies a high state of consciousness: an open, alert state.
Some of the more interesting research on the subject is by the psychiatrist James Anthony PhD. He wanted to know if psychotic parents influence their child to become psychotic as well. He found out that 90% of such children became psychotic in one way or another, but the 10% who were spared psychosis, developed and flourished much better than children who grew up in a healthy home.