Recently, I watched this TED talk. It’s about being a survivor. It’s about stepping beyond the label of surviving, and it gave me a chance to step back and take stock.
I have a weird relationship with the word ‘survivor. There have been times that I have lamented barely making it through in ‘survival mode.’ There have been days when I would hear folks talk about not wanting to ‘just survive but thrive’ and I wanted to hide under the table because surviving was all I could do.
As I think about it, we are all survivors of many things. In fact, sometimes it can feel like life is just a series of mishaps that we survive: Deployments, PTSD for ourselves or our partners, depression, cancer, illness, abuse, the heartbreaks of our children. All these things are part of our stories. And sometimes surviving these things becomes the focus of our stories for a season.
But surviving is not the whole of who we are.
4 years ago, I had a tumor. The weird thing about the kind of tumor that I had was that going by pathology, even doctors are unable to figure out whether to call it 'cancerous' or 'benign.' But I will have follow up for the rest of my life to make sure it does not return.
At first I didn't feel like I could apply the word 'survivor' to myself. Did I survive cancer or didn't I? Was surviving a 'complex neoplasm that may or may not be classified as cancer' still a thing that I could claim or did it just sound kind of pathetic?
I had to work to be ok with claiming the word 'survivor.' I was ok knowing it was a thing I was doing or even a mode I existed in. But could I claim the term, “survivor?”
It was a big deal when I finally did.
It took realizing that regardless of what the tumor was called that I had been through something real. It took coming terms with the fact that the hard I had endured was really hard, and it was ok to stand up in that and look at it in the face.
Finally I did. I was able to. I put on the term survivor and I wore it with pride. For a time that looked like doing all I could to give back to ‘the cause.’ I looked for support organizations to give back to. I snatched up my awareness ribbon. I told my story.
And it was right to do so.
At some point, I realized that I was telling my survivor story over and over again--if not to others publicly, then to myself. Part of that was the continuing struggle to come to terms with it all. Sometimes you have to tell a story over and over and over and over again to get it all out of your system. And so I did tell my story over and over again. I told it to get it out. I told it to look at it objectively. I told it to help others. And I healed in each retelling. At times I worried that people were tired of hearing it. I am grateful for the people in my life who 'stayed on the bus' while I worked it all the way out.
I kept telling it until it started to taste funny in my mouth. It started to not feel like the truest version of me anymore.
Instead of feeling like a thing to claim, that part of my story began feeling like a box.
Quite abruptly I realized that I did not want the fact that I had had this tumor and been through this thing to be the most interesting thing about me.
I had moved beyond the story of survivor for that part of my life. And I started to put on other pieces.
I realized that surviving was something I had done. But the things that were interesting about me were the parts of my being. The things that held me together when I survived that tumor, and the deployments, and the grief that life had handed me were the parts of my being--my unique perspective on the world… The things I liked to do when I had 10 minutes of quiet to string together. The way I liked to blow an afternoon. The person I was when my kids were giggling or screaming. The person I was with my husband.
To survive is an honorable thing. It is a thing to celebrate. To be sure, it tells us something true about us.
But I’m beginning to wonder if it maybe even though it reveals truth it isn’t the truest thing about us.
We are all of us survivors. We are people who have strung together the stories of what we’ve endured like a string of pearls. And that is something to be proud of.
I honor all that we have survived collectively. We as a community have endured over a decade of war and deployments. We have gone through personal battles with disease, addictions, and abuse, and abandonment. We have survived a great many things. I celebrate that.
But I also believe deeply that our survival stories are only a part of the dynamic, dazzling, complete package of who each of us are. It was who we are that carried us through all along.