Survivor - from the Latin: supervivere; super – above, vivere – to live.
Survivor: Above to live. A place I can aim for that is somewhere above this worried, fearful, stressed world that we’ve come to accept as normal. When truly pushed to the edge, still, we usually meet the challenge. That thing you’ve heard mention of? Survival instinct? It’s real. Been there, done that. As they say, I can ‘testify’.
I can testify that we underestimate ourselves. When push comes to shove we instinctively rise to meet the occasion. It’s not courage… it’s not bravery. It’s instinct.
I can testify that we are capable of so much more than we believe we are. As Mexican artist Frida Kahlo who lived with much pain and limitation said, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” She painted her way through her survival. It helped her ‘above to live’ the circumstances of her life.
There is a Chinese teaching riddle from the chi gong healing tradition:
How do you move a mountain?
One shovelful at a time.
We stand at the bottom of that mountain feeling overwhelmed, feeling doubt, feeling where do I even begin? You begin when you decide to pick up the shovel. You begin when you determine that you will do all it takes, regardless… You begin when you decide that no matter how long it takes, no matter if your undertaking is successful or not – that it’s not the outcome that matters as much as the journey taken - that shoveling matters.
That mountain might be a life-threatening illness, an abusive relationship or an addiction. It might be an ill child, the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster… It might be the terror of living in our own minds, or our own nations at war… It might be poverty. We each have our own mountains, things that call us to rise - above to live…
Some say of cancer survivors that the moment you receive a cancer diagnosis you're a survivor. Others say they don't like the word for a variety of reasons.
Above to live: survivor - I can not only wear that word, I’m thankful to be able to wear it. It's lovely to be a survivor. Truly lovely. And it's a horror. A horror of circumstance. That's the part I've had to live above. Survivor isn't a new word to me. If it were a coat, I've worn quite a few of them throughout my life. I'm sure most of you have also.
There was surviving my alcoholic Dad, the beatings my Mom endured and that I powerlessly witnessed. There was the electrocution of my brother and my family’s survival as the loss brought grief and depression. There was a lot of human damage, and unhealed, damaged humans create more damage… I'll just leave it at that.
As a young man I married into a Jewish family - survivors of the Holocaust; not that they were in the camps - they were the part of the family who left in time. But others in the family did not get out in time. It's all the same... here, there.... Jewish holocaust survivorship is a huge shadow over the shoulder. Kind of like cancer for many of us - frequently looking over the shoulder – hyper-vigilant. Is that it? Is the shadow closing in once again???
Oh yeah, and the cancer... and the treatment! I survived that! Can't forget that- although I almost did! Caution: Chemo-brain At Work!
In light of the shit in my life, Survivor has been a good place to land. I don't object to the word. In fact I've taught my kids to feel strong in the knowledge that they come from two lineages of survivors: the Jewish side and the Mexican/Indian side. We wear many mantles of survivorship between us. Many coats. In these times, when so many people are living in fear of an unknown frightening future of their imaginings and a matching powerlessness, it can be strengthening to remember all those many surviving moments in a lifetime - our own and others.
We all come from survivors really. There are strong, hardy stories in EVERYONE'S families... Those were the folks who lived to reproduce, and their hardy babies survived - sometimes terrible odds. The hardy survived... and gave birth to the next generation, and the next, and the next.... and here we are: Survivors... from the moment we are born.
Above to live.
Especially when I was in the throes of cancer and treatment, back when the journey felt like I’d been plunged into the third ring of hell, I thought of holocaust survivors. Their stories spoke to me loudly. Victor Frankl especially:
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
That was a powerful reminder to me and still is - "to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Sometimes I am uncomfortable with the word though. I wish it weren't part of my story. But ain't that just the major bitch of this whole cancer thing and every other survivorship, including the life after and the after-effects: It is what it is. I find myself arriving at this conclusion repeatedly. "It is what it is." But that's only after I've pitched a royal fit, screaming and crying, railing against it all, raising my fists.... raising hell and then in exhaustion giving up and collapsing, giving in to a new level of acceptance that "it is what it is" and attempting to move forward from there.
And I continue to seek: Above to live.
In context of ‘surviving cancer’, I'm only recently becoming dissatisfied with the word. It's not big enough. I want more. Sometimes ‘survivor’ can sound like the bare minimum. We made it. We're alive… and I want more than that bare minimum of ‘I survived’. And for that sometimes I feel guilty, as if maybe I want too much, but not so much guilt that I stop thinking I deserve to be worthy of more and that the pursuing of it is worthwhile.
My local YMCA received a grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to start a LiveStrong program training cancer patients; helping us recover our de-conditioned bodies. I've been going to the gym working out under the trainers' guidance. It’s been extraordinarily hard work for me and usually I’ve felt worsened with my post-chemo nerve condition in my back and leg. Often I was laid up after in extreme pain. I pushed through. Many days I hated it, didn't want to go. I'd say, "Fuck Lance Armstrong!" I hated and resented him with his Tour de France, race winning, testicular cancer survivor shit. Show-off. I hated him. My body was broke down in so many ways. Recovering it seemed futile at times. I wanted to give up many times, but didn't. From the beginning I committed that I would show up. I would consistently show up. No matter what, I would show up. After some experimentation I found my proper challenge level which was at a much lower level than my male psyche wanted to recognize. I stopped hurting myself repeatedly and started making some progress physically. The biggest strengthening? This one caught me by surprise – my mind, the result of making the commitment; pushing through despite wanting to quit about 30 times a day; showing up, regardless...
I look down at my wrist and this little funky yellow band of rubber from China with the word LIVESTRONG written on it that I received for completing the program. It represents a lot to me. I earned that word I'm wearing - LIVESTRONG. I'm not somebody who has ever worn any of the little rubber bracelets before. This one is special though. I think maybe I'm doing it - I'm becoming more than a cancer survivor. I hope so.
Yeah, there's been some crap in my life. I have no corner on crap. I know y'all have had your share also. And we're here. Still here to tell the tale. Still here to write the remainder of the story - at least as much as we are allowed to contribute to that story line. And as Victor Frankl would remind us, no matter what, nobody can rob us of our dignity or the last of our human freedoms – to choose our attitude, to choose our own way. That's the part of the story line we actually do have control over: how we respond to the crappy circumstances of that moment; we always have the Power of Choice in our response.
Survivor: I can live with that word. I just want the chance to really live it from its roots in Latin - Above to Live.
LiveStrong y'all, (and I apologize to Lance and all for cursing him!)
"After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips." - Victor Frankl
Bob Marley's Redemption song taken around the world: