The problem with surviving

More than one person has asked me why I dislike identifying myself as “a survivor”, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. After all, I could easily call myself a cancer survivor (Have I survived yet? Part I and Part II), a survivor of terrorism (My first bus bombing Part I – Part II – Part III), and a survivor of some very ghastly childhood experiences, which I don’t intend to write about here. So why do I shrink from the word?

Three reasons come quickly to mind. The first probably comes from some sort of magical thinking: if I don’t name it, it wasn’t real. In order to be a survivor, there must have been something to survive, something that might have killed me and didn’t. Although my life today is full and rich, and my life up to now is what brought me to this point, I don’t hesitate to admit that I would have preferred not going through some of the worst bits. Greatly preferred. More than once, I have felt like shouting “Enough! Stop this n-o-w!” More than once I have prayed, “Again? Really? Are you sure you didn’t get a wrong address and intend this horror for some other Knot Telling?” So perhaps my reluctance to call myself a survivor is actually a reluctance to fully integrate my personal history.

Another reason has to do with a culture of survivor communities that we see both on the Internet and in three-dimensional life. I want to tread carefully here. These communities can be an invaluable source of support and help, and most of them indeed are. Many, many people draw huge amounts of strength from them. Survivor communities are among the best fruit of the self-help revolution, both on- and off line. At the same time, speaking only for myself, I don’t want to define myself by what happened to me and I don’t want choose a peer group just because the same things happened to them. Now that I think about it – and the reason I write is to find out what I think – more than being a distinct second reason, this seems like an extension of the first. Hmm.

The main reason is semantic. I see a continuum of being that starts at existing, moves through surviving, and culminates in living. In this schema, existing is the most basic level of life. People exist when they are physically alive but have little physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy to invest in anything more complex.

Surviving, on the other hand, involves investing almost 100% of one’s energies in coping, dealing, getting through the immediate exigencies of life. Being in what I call “survival mode” means that while I do not have energy available for long-term goals, I am more or less creatively coping with the crisis or problem situation and taking active measures to bring it to an end or I am out of the situation and dealing with my immediate physical, mental and perhaps emotional needs.

But living – living means that I can apply all my energies to all my needs. Living means that I can flourish. Living means that I can look to the future and believe that it will be good. In fact – having written and thus discovered what I think – I suppose I am reinventing the wheel of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with all this explanation.

Yet there is another dimension. In an often-quoted gospel verse (John 10:10), Jesus says “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly”. As a Christian living in the Holy Land, I cannot believe that the Word who was conceived in Bethlehem, born in Nazareth, preached in the Galilee, was crucified and rose again in Jerusalem and is still being spoken in both the spiritual and the material worlds today came so that I might merely survive.

6 Responses

  1. I really like this post. I like the way you are obviously thinking through things as you write, letting things gel and solidify as they make sense to you.
    Of course, I must agree with you that the ultimate goal is living our lives, not just surviving from one crisis or challenge to the next, though sometimes it feels like the latter is the norm and not the exception.
    We were on the same wavelength today, you and I.
    Peace to you, fellow blogger, in this Christmas season.


  2. Knot Telling says:

    I’m glad you liked it, Greg.

    Yes, I wasn’t kidding about writing to find out what I think, even though it’s a flip way to say it. I use meditation and writing as tools for living an examined life, which is part of what I call living intentionally. They brought me to a very good place of freedom in my life today.

    And now I’ll head over to your blog and read your response to my comment.

    (Isn’t it wonderful to be able to engage in this kind of dialogue from one continent to another with the immediacy (unmediated nature) of the Internet? This was the stuff of science fiction when I was a kid.)

    • gregsmithmd says:

      Yes, it is wonderful. I am always happy to have new readers and to make new friends. I welcome your insights and comments, and I will leave mine as appropriate, with your permission.


  3. Kathi says:

    I like this, too. Words do matter. Implicit in the word ‘survive’ is the word ‘catastrophe.’ If the sky is not falling this minute, or even this week, then aren’t we doing something besides surviving? I know what I’m trying to do these days is live, not just hang on by my thumbs. And then, I suppose, it all depends on how one defines ‘catastrophe.’ xoxo

    • Knot Telling says:

      How one defines catastrophe, and surviving, and living, and doing and…
      You, my dear, remind me of myself when I wrote that post about surviving in the imperfective aspect. 🙂

  1. 23 May, 2013

    […] I attribute to myself and others. I have written quite a bit about that. You might want to look at The Problem with Surviving and Have I Survived Yet, for […]

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