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Review of "Supersurvivors"

By David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz
Harper, 2014
Review by Brad Frazier on Mar 31st 2015

Supersurvivors uses recurring themes in the stories of incredibly resilient human beings to sketch out the possibilities for “post traumatic growth” for people who have suffered devastating, life-altering tragedies. However, Feldman and Kravetz ultimately claim – rather democratically – that supersurvivors show us all how we can live more fully realized lives in spite of pointless suffering, injustice, violence, and other evils, large and small, of the human condition. They optimistically conclude that all of us have a capacity for this kind of resilience.

The book consists of nine chapters and an epilogue that run to just over 200 pages. Each chapter offers stories that highlight a particular recurring theme in the lives of supersurvivors. The chapters are very accessible not least because the research presented is nicely illustrated in the riveting stories. It is this book’s purpose to tell these stories, and to wrest as much psychological insight and wisdom as possible from them – even for more ordinary forms of suffering and indignity. I think it largely achieves its purpose.

Unfortunately, each year there are millions of new opportunities for a person to become a supersurvivor. As Feldman and Kravetz note: each year 13 million people are diagnosed with cancer; 50 million people survive car wrecks; 10 million suffer traumatic brain injuries; and 1 out of every 3 women is raped, beaten, or abused in some other way. That’s not to mention many other horrors people experience that certainly are not captured in these statistics, or perhaps any statistics whatsoever. As the Buddha sagely says, life is suffering.

Fortunately, that’s not all it is. The stories are inspiring, the characters intriguing. Feldman and Kravetz do an excellent job, moreover, of counteracting the Halo effect with regard to the remarkable people whose lives are on display in the book. They note up front and underscore later that supersurvivors are not necessarily morally blameless and are not without character flaws – they are all too human. That is what lends the rosy conclusion some support – perhaps significantly more than it would have otherwise. The supersurvivors clearly are just ordinary human beings in many respects. If they can do it, perhaps we can do it too.

Beware of the potential dark side here, however. So many people are permanently, irrevocably crushed by tragedy and trauma. We should be on guard not even to begin to think of such people as persons who lack or have failed to utilize something that would have made them supersurvivors. That’s just another subtle way to blame people for their own suffering, which is probably one of the oldest, most inhumane, and frankly, morally and emotionally obtuse theodicies in the world. (The authors are aware of this issue.)

What exactly is a supersurvivor, anyhow? In short: a supersurvivor is a person who suffers a trauma or tragedy, and bounces back from it with a greater degree of positive change than is normal, to the point that supersurvivors change the meaning of their suffering by turning it into fertilizer for personal growth and self-creation. Most people experience at least some degree of positive change, usually inner growth, at some point after trauma, it turns out. Supersurvivors, however, experience profound inner change (“perceived growth,” as it is sometimes called). As a result, they begin to notice and appreciate value and opportunity where they might never have seen them before. The meanings of their lives are altered, ultimately for the better by their resilience.

Perhaps this is the spot where the clarification Feldman and Kravetz make in the beginning of the book, needs to be noted. These authors are clear to disabuse us of the notion that there is something inherently positive or indispensable about atrocities, violence, disasters, illness, and other sources of human (and animal) trauma. They emphasize that they are notextolling the “bright side of tragedy,” or the “power of positive thinking,” and that no trauma is good (7).

Another way to put this is to say that Supersurvivors doesn’t offer us a kind of theodicy. Feldman and Kravetz are not proposing a way of reconciling ourselves, intellectually or emotionally, to the horrors of the world.

Here are 10 random but interesting (to me at least) nuggets from Supersurvivors:

* Grounded hope is much better for you than mere positive thinking. What’s the difference? Positive thinking often involves having to distort the situation, to realize its potency. Grounded hope, however, combines a realistic view of the situation with perhaps a slightly inflated belief in oneself and in one’s ability to control one’s future.

* We need some positive illusions about ourselves, if we want to achieve, create, and be productive, and if we want to be as resilient as we can be.

*  It’s extremely easy to fall into victim blaming if one believes some version of the following combination: the world is basically good; good things happen to good people; of course, I am a good person. It’s a short trip to ‘if a bad thing happens to a person, that person must not be good in some way’ from here. Cue Job’s friends.

* What most matters in regard to support from others, when a person is recovering from trauma, is that this person believes that the support she is experiencing will continue to be there for her as she needs it.

* We are death averse, of course. There is a superficial way to deal with death, and a deeper way, what Feldman and Kravetz refer to as “death reflection.” The latter involves integrating into one’s life and thoughts the recognition of the reality that death will come, inevitably, invariably. This kind of bracing facing-up-to-death perspective is a theme of every supersurvivor’s story.

* Religious faith can be helpful in the work of resilience. It can also be harmful. The most toxic kind of faith for personal growth and recovery is belief in a judgmental, angry God who is punishing you for your sins through your suffering; and everyone else, too.

* So, the actual content of a person’s religious belief matters, in terms of its effects on one’s overall mental health. Some particular religious beliefs are deadly; others are helpful and promote recovery. (I bet you can guess which is which.)

* A formula for a potentially edifying form of forgiveness: give up the quest to change what has already happened; admit the suffering you’ve endured may have forever changed your life; own your feelings of anger and resentment; give up the hope that the past could be any different. Abandon your right to revenge; refuse thereby to be a victim.

* Choice is not what it’s cracked up to be, as Feldman and Kravetz put it. More options quickly lead to decision paralysis.

* There are “maximizers” and “satisfiers” when it comes to kinds of chooser. The maximizers have to try to make the best choice possible, whenever possible. The satisfiers settle for a good-enough option when it presents itself. Maximizers make better choices; but they experience much more anxiety, and in a way their work is never done. Satisfiers experience more satisfaction and much less regret than maximizers.

I am definitely a satisfier. This seems a good enough place to end.   



© 2015 Brad Frazier


Brad Frazier, Dept of Philosophy, Wells College