Sherwood: The Survivors Club

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Ben Sherwood, The Survivors Club : The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. New York : Grand Central Publishing, 2009. xvi + 383 pages; illustrated; includes bibliographical references and index.

Intrigued by an National Public Radio interview with the author, I wanted to read about the characteristics and traits survivors share. The author interviewed people who survived some kind of physical or intense emotional trauma in their lives ranging from POWs, cancer survivors, plane crashes, accidents of an appalling variety, and even the Holocaust. Some of the stories are uncomfortable to read but each illustrates an important aspect of how and why some people survive when others don’t.

Interspersed with their stories are interviews with scientists who have studied survival from diverse perspectives. They share their findings on what it takes to survive a plane crash, how the body responds physically to accidents and stresses, whether attitude or faith makes a difference in survival, how to create your own luck, the genetic basis of resiliency, and why fear and adversity can be good for you.

In the second part of the book, Sherwood discusses the five types of personalities that survivors display: Fighter, Believer, Connector, Thinker, and Realist. Twelve psychological strengths emerged most often in interviews with survivors and discussions with the experts. These include adaptability, resilience, faith, hope, purpose, tenacity, love, empathy, intelligence, ingenuity, flow, and instinct. The author worked with a leading psychometrician – she studies the science of psychological measurement - to develop an Internet-based Survivor Profiler test. Readers of the book may take the test online to discover their Survivor personality and three dominant strengths (as well as the three weakest ones). By knowing your strengths, you can "exercise and build them like muscles, and mobilize them in a crunch."

The test was interesting but I wasn’t terribly surprised at my dominant strengths. Returning to the book, however, left me wanting. Each of the five survivor types and twelve psychological strengths were described briefly but there were no recommendations on specific means to go about the exercising and building of them. For some clues on how to do that, you have to return to the beginning of the book to review the three rules of the Survivor Club:

First Rule: Everyone is a survivor. At some point in life, everyone faces some kind of hardship. A survivor is defined in the book as "anyone who faces and overcomes adversity, hardship, illness, or physical or emotional trauma." They keep going, whether only for a short time or for years, no matter what they face. They understand that their life may be changed forever and never return to "normal." They accept and move on, building a new "normal."

This bit really resonated with me, as many who learn about the devastating impacts of climate change and peak oil on our current way of life go through emotional trauma. The steps to dealing with the realization that life will not continue as we know it are similar to those in dealing with any sort of loss.

Second Rule: It’s not all relative. Whatever adversity comes your way, whatever crisis you face, is your challenge to deal with at that moment. It may appear to be a less severe crisis than someone else went through but comparisons don't matter and they don't help. You have to deal with what you’ve been dealt and not waste time or energy comparing your crisis to what others have gone through. You have every right to be overwhelmed even if it, superficially, seems like it should be easier for you.

Third Rule: You’re stronger than you know. When facing adversity, survivors find that they have strengths and abilities they didn’t know they had. The desire for survival is strong and crises force people to pull on all available resources, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Dig deep!

I would recommend giving the book a read, whether you have faced a significant crisis or not, although I suspect those who are already in the "survivors club" may get more out of it than I did. You can also explore the website where additional survivors share their stories.

-- Notes by CC

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