"Please, I know you're going to write something. I'm just asking you, don't write it in a way that makes people feel sorry for me," Jimmy Butler once said. "I hate that. There's nothing to feel sorry about. I love what happened to me. It made me who I am. I'm grateful for the challenges I've faced. Please, don't make them feel sorry for me."
The quote from Jimmy Butler of the Philadelphia 76ers indicates the kind of person he is: a supersurvivor. Everyone goes through adverse circumstances, but there are survivors, and then there's the distinction of the supersurvivor, the people who bounce back and succeed in ways unimaginable, in ways no one ever thought possible. Supersurvivors don't just bounce back, however. They bounce forward and channel their rage and energies into "a new calling, a new mission, or a new path." Above all, they have dramatically altered their lives after facing a crisis.
David Feldman of Psychology Today studies individual stories and case studies of people who are labeled in as "supersurvivors," and often they don't have any special abilities or fame like Jimmy Butler, but rather are ordinary people, people like us, who "aren't powerless in the face of tragedy and suffering."
The first person Feldman follows is Asha Mevlana, a 38-year-old cancer survivor who started taking violin lessons. Often, she improvised, telling her interviewer that "I played the anxiety that I felt when they injected me with chemo, and I played how I tried to be strong for everyone else when I was terrified." After playing for a year, and encouraged by a friend, Melvana took a risk: she moved to Los Angeles to start trying to get paying gigs playing the violin. "She still considered herself an amateur violinist. Then again, she had nothing to lose."
She auditioned to join a tour as the lead violinist in the famous band, "Twisted Sister," and went on to perform alongside musicians like Alanis Morissette, Jay Z, and Mary J. Bilge. Feldman then inserts a note in the article, emphasizing the fact that Melvana, like us, is not a superhero and isn't superhuman. Supersurvivors like her "wrestle with the same questions we all face: Who am I? What do I believe? How should I live my life?"
The next supersurvivor surveyed is Alan Lock, a 34-year-old British veteran who was once a navigation officer on the British destroyer, HMS York. One day, he couldn't read his navigation charts, had his eyes tested, and had tests done that showed he had a genetic abnormality named macular degeneration. Normally affecting people in their 60s and 70s, Lock showed severe symptoms at 23, and "would never read, drive, or fully see again."
Many of his friends encouraged Lock to think positively, to look on the bright side of his struggle. However, this didn't feel very genuine for him: as a natural pessimist, he was well aware he couldn't bring back his vision or life in the navy. "Thinking realistically was the only way to move forward," he said. He rejected positive thinking, and this acceptance of his reality made rooms for other options in his life. Called grounded hope, the approach relies on building choices based on a firm understanding of reality.
He ended up being successful: in 2008, he was the first legally blind person to row across the Atlantic. With his friend, he started rowing from the Canary Islands to Barbados, with no motor or sail, and only food to survive, a compass, GPS, and gas-powered cooking equipment. They faced setbacks from rough seas and winds, but those setbacks did not deter Lock. "It wasn't as if I didn't see this coming," he said. But the question then was "what show I do now?"
Boreham and Lock completed the task in 85 days, and Lock cemented his name in the Guinness World Record book as the first blind person to row across an ocean.
Casey Pieretti, a 48-year-old stuntman, had a different approach and formula to becoming a supersurvivor. He lost his right leg at 19 in a car accident with a drunk driver, but when he awoke in the hospital, he immediately accepted his situation. "I could have died; I should have died," he thought. In that accident, his father and brother also died, but he made a goal that day: he was going to run a triathlon within a year. He pushed through rehab, and with a prosthetic, almost a year after the accident, he ran a 7-minute mile.
Pieretti believed in positive illusions about his control over his life and his ability to control his future, and friends found his unapologetic confidence admirable and delusional simultaneously. Positive illusions are defined by psychologist Shelley Taylor, as "people's mildly distorted positive perceptions of themselves, one example of which is an exaggerated sense of personal control."
Pieretti once said that "There's no limit to what I can do...I'm willing to try anything." He later embarked on a journey to skate across the country with a friend, from San Diego to D.C., and he succeeded. Hollywood called and asked for him to be a stuntman, and is now one of Hollywood's most coveted stunt actors.
Feldman makes sure to differentiate between positive illusions of control and the denial-based, disingenuous positive thinking that Lock rejected. Positive illusions are inflated views of someone's ability to control the future, not distortions of the situation. It's the ability to see your failures and problems accurately, but it's also the ability to ask "what now?" and believe there's always something you can do about them.
In all these stories, however, is a common theme. Lock rowed across the Atlantic with a friend. Pieretti also skated across the country with a friend, while Melvana, encouraged by a friend, moved to Los Angeles and grew successful as an electric violinist. None of these subjects were alone, and there were people who were there for them, unconditionally.
The truth is we will all have different ways and formulas to become supersurvivors in our own lives, and everyone has their own style of resilience. Feldman closes his article with the sentence that "believing that someone is by your side -- someone you can count on -- is one of the great secrets to supersurvival." Supersurvivors didn't do it alone: they had support, and they had resources. They could not do it without the untold supporters who had their back, and although it's not everything, perhaps knowing and having someone who will always be at your side is one of the keys to supersurvival.