Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me

The gate at Auschwitz -- for Survival post
The gate at Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”)

 

As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.

A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.

Dr. Viktor Frankl -- for Survival post
Dr. Viktor Frankl

The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”

Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.

Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.

I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.

Martin Buber -- for Survival post
Martin Buber

And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.

Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.

  1. Keep your heart open.

Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.

  1. Recognize the absurd in your situation.

Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.

  3Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.

We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.

  1. Trust your creative instincts.

I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.

Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.