Survivors: Who Are They?

They walk among us everyday.

Sometimes they’re obvious. More often than not, they just seem to blend in yet we know they are present. We recognize them as family members, friends and co-workers. They’re strangers too – you know the ones … people whose smiles simply brighten our day with just a passing glance.

I used to believe that a survivor was a person who simply made it past an extraordinary challenge. If you lived after a serious accident, you were a survivor. If you emerged from a prisoner of war camp, you were a survivor. If your cancer or Multiple Sclerosis was in remission … you met the criteria as well. I’m sure you get the point.

Yet for a physician focused on whole person care, the concept of being a survivor had to encompass more than just existing despite the odds. Frankly what I had considered to be a unique perspective wasn’t original at all. According to Random House, a survivor is “a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship or setbacks.”

The implied element of importance in the definition is “prosperity,” a term that describes not only success, but also a sense of flourishing and thriving. These are distinguishing factors that set survivors apart.

A number of people have asked me how long one has to live with cancer in order to be considered a survivor. The answer has always been spontaneous. I’m convinced that success is not measured in the length of our days but rather by how we spend them and specifically how we choose to share our love.

For surviving is far more than just living and breathing. It requires courage, fortitude and a willingness to see beyond what one’s eyes are revealing. It demands a connection with one’s inner voice, listening and discovering what it takes to move beyond adversity into an unexplored realm.

Survivors heed an inner calling to put back into their lives what is missing – the foundation of healing. Some reestablish or develop a spiritual focus. Others strengthen family bonds. Many set forth to do what they’ve always dreamed of, yet never made the time.

On the surface it seems that for a person facing a serious illness, time is not a luxury. This belief tends to separate those who become survivors from those who do not. While time might seem horribly constraining, it is the very fabric upon which healing proceeds … one moment at a time. And I’ll share a secret that every survivor knows well – each one of them always has enough time to do what they need to do.

Perhaps you’re asking yourself how long it takes to become a survivor. The answer is amazingly straight-forward. It takes a brief moment, a mere split second, a nod, an affirmation, a choice – even in the face of death.

You might believe that surviving and dying are incompatible. Yet frankly surviving and living are not one and the same. For each person in his or her own way has the potential to flourish and thrive even amidst the prospect of death. Survivors choose the way they die just as they choose the manner in which they spend their precious days.

Survivors continue to live on in our hearts. They inspire and motivate us to live life more fully and to appreciate the wondrous gift of each new day before we are faced with a life-threatening challenge. Their examples provide the evidence we need to take the next step when our last ounce of energy seems to be spent. Survivors spark a sense of love, balance and peacefulness that spontaneously transforms everyone who knows or remembers them.

Where are the survivors? They are all around us. You’ll discover them emerging everyday amidst the adversity that consumes others. You’ll know them easily. Their depth, caring and understanding mark their survivorship. These are the souls (perhaps the angels) that reach out and inspire us to fully live each precious moment of our lives.

As Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream.” Consider it SURVIVOR training — Mind Over Matter!

© 2000 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved

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Written by Barry Bittman MD

Explore Wellness in 2021