Lately I’ve been binge-watching a show called I Shouldn’t Be Alive! on Amazon Prime Video. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. Each episode recounts tales of extreme danger and edge-of-your-seat survival. Through dramatic reenactments and gripping first-person narrations, the show tells stories such as these:
A young man with dreams of being a famous explorer like his father gets lost in the Amazon, by himself. For twenty-eight days he battles dehydration, starvation, and malaria before graciously stumbling upon the edge of civilization and rescue.
Two friends charter a fishing trip in Mexico, but they quickly become marooned on a deserted island when their guide gets lost and their boat runs out of fuel. They must keep moving, to the other side of the island, to have any hope of being spotted.
A man on the eve of his fiftieth birthday goes solo hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but he gets stuck on a small mountain outcropping when a storm hits. He must melt snow for water and forget about eating. He must hang onto pleasant memories while waiting to hear the sounds of a rescue helicopter.
A recent divorcee who wants to find a new lease on life sails out into the Atlantic, but when a storm shatters his boat to pieces, he drifts along the ocean vastness for 76 days before being spotted.
While watching these and other episodes of the show, I asked myself: Could I make it through such danger? Could I keep my faith and my wits about me? Could I survive a situation that was trying to kill me? And then I remembered, I kind of already did survive a life-and-death situation.
My most profound I Shouldn’t Be Alive! moment came when I stopped taking antianxiety drugs—Paxil and Xanax—and that “moment” lasted for several years. When the pills went out the window, the dark nights came crashing down. I was overcome by nausea, sleeplessness, sweating, fatigue, cramps, and body pains. I couldn’t exercise or eat or go to the bathroom regularly.
During that prolonged prescription-drug withdrawal (a condition that many doctors still don't acknowledge), I felt hopeless at times, as if I’d been abandoned on death’s doorstep. But I dug deep and found strength and faith I didn’t know I had. I kept dreaming—dreaming of survival and a better tomorrow—and eventually a better tomorrow came. Eventually I found the edge of the jungle and broke back into civilized life.
I think we’ve all been through our own version of I Shouldn’t Be Alive! Whether it is the loss of a job, the dissolution of a marriage, the experience of being rejected by peers, the dark nights of bankruptcy, the sickness of a loved one, or any one of a dozen other frightful situations, we’ve all been there. But if you’re reading this, you’re still alive. That’s the good news. You survived! And if you survived, you certainly learned something along the way, even if you don’t recognize it yet.
The troubles in life will come—the proverbial shipwrecks and snakebites will find their way into our lives—but if we use those situations to build a toolkit of survival skills, then no experience has been wasted. Those who learn how to use their pain become stronger through it.
During my darkest days, I built (at times unconsciously) the following survival skills that I now carry with me. They don’t ensure me a trouble-free life, but they do help me to survive my own mini-Amazons. When I feel momentarily depressed or anxious or overwhelmed, I can dig deep—deep into this cache of tools—to find hope. When I hear the jaguars rustling in the brush, I can cling to these things to find courage. These survival skills serve me well, and I hope that you will find them useful, too.
BUILD YOURSELF STRONG
A strong body honed through a commitment to exercise and self-care will serve you well no matter what stage of life you find yourself in. When I was going through prescription-drug withdrawal, I gave up cigarettes, began running, and began to pay closer attention to proper nutrition. I cut back on alcohol, too. I didn’t give it up completely, I just began to exercise more caution with it. As a result of these lifestyle changes, I’m stronger and more resilient. There are more good days, and the bad ones seem to pass by more quickly and without causing as much damage as they used to. Faced with hiking into the proverbial wilderness of life, I want exercise sheathed by my side at all times. It can cut through blue moods and get me back to the land of the living every time.
BRING GOD WITH YOU EVERYWHERE
This one is invaluable, too. It’s life-affirming and life-preserving. When you are going through your own dark times, whatever they are, you should use them to forge a stronger spiritual connection. Then, in the future, you can remember that you are never truly alone. When life is rolling along merrily, we sometimes let the things that should be our priorities—the things that are truly vital—fall to the wayside of our attention. We might neglect important relationships, including our relationship with the great Creator and Preserver. But that relationship is ultimately the supreme source of inner peace. And without inner peace, nothing else really matters. As we've seen recently with the unfortunate suicide of Anthony Bourdain, having the world isn’t enough. Fame, wealth, professional freedom, and popular esteem just aren’t enough. We need a strong sense of spiritual connection—a strong sense of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going—to survive the truly dark times. Bring God with you everywhere.
GET THAT PERSPECTIVE
This survival skill is all about learning to embrace a long-term outlook. Such a perspective not only allows us to lean on the efficacy of “This Too Shall Pass” during tough times, but it allows us to enjoy the good time more fully too, because we learn how to feel joyful without clinging too tightly or dreading the end of our fun. The rough times will eventually move away, and there are always more good times to be had. This moment is important, but it is never just all about today. Embrace a strong knowledge of self. People who go through difficult times might get to know themselves intimately, perhaps more intimately than they ever wanted to. While twisting and turning through sleepless nights, every past mistake flashes through one’s mind, and every unturned stone of opportunity weighs heavily on the psyche. We look starkly into the eyes of our failings, and then we have a decision. Do we make peace with our mistakes—do we grow—or do we stay stuck in guilt and self-loathing? If we decide to move forward, we then do so from a newly enlightened place. And we do so with a greater knowledge of self and a greater belief in ourselves. Let the dark times build you.
LEARN TO DREAM AGAIN
Sometimes the difficult days make us forget how to dream, and then that inability to dream plunges us into further darkness. But dreaming is important. It’s a necessary survival skill. Trying to get through life without dreaming is like trying to sleep while holding your breath—it’s not going to happen. Adult life can shackle us with lifeless labels like “John the Accountant” or “Jane the IT Professional,” but we are really so much more than that. Do you want to be a world traveler, a singer, a writer, a photographer? Let your dreams sustain you during the difficult times, and let them guide you during the good times. Nurture them. Follow their lead.
PRACTICE BUILDING YOURSELF UP
When we are stranded in the deserts of our lives (I’ll keep going with these survival metaphors here), we need to rely heavily on ourselves. But too often we don’t know how to encourage ourselves. Taking a cue from those who have hurt us, some of us have learned how to denigrate ourselves. Or, perhaps afraid of being arrogant, some of us have gone too far in the other direction. We’ve learned to criticize and berate ourselves. Starting today, practice building yourself up. Compliment yourself on every little thing. Sometimes, especially during life’s dark times, the only one you can lean on is yourself. And when you only have your own voice to listen to, it had better be a positive force.
LEARN TO PUT YOUR PAIN TO USE
How much have you been through in life? I’m going to guess a lot. We’ve all been casually dismissed or outright rejected at times—at times by the very people we considered our allies and safe harbors. Some of us have fought battles of the body and others have fought battles of the mind. We’ve all been through a lot of pain. The question then becomes: Do we allow that pain to slice through our vital organs —most notably our heart—or do we stitch our threads of pain into useful tools and armor? Let your pain energize you instead of draining you. The individuals who learn to use their pain will ultimately go further in life.
The above list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a solid start. The next time you find yourself heartbroken or sick or without a hopeful thought to cling to, remember: do thirty minutes of exercise, connect with God, make peace with your past and commit to growth, formulate a dream, encourage and compliment yourself, and then get energized by the drama of your situation—the raw pain and emotion of it all. Get energized and move forward. You will survive this way, and you will build additional tools along the way.
MICHAEL PRIEBE is the author of THE LOVELY GRIND: SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION FOR WORKDAYS (90 Devotions for Stress Relief & Personal Growth). Get the book here, and sign-up for The Lovely Grind's mailing list here to receive all of Michael's blog posts and newsletters.