By Ruth Minshull
We constantly hear about the many forms of insanity and aberration. We toss the descriptive phrases around as if we’d learned them in kindergarten: paranoia, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Type A, B and AB behavior.
And, of course, there’s a phobia to match half the words, objects, varmints and moon beams on the planet—and we don them proudly.
It’s enough to make you wonder if anyone is truly sane.
What is the opposite of loony? Have the shrinks ever taken time out from cataloging our derangements to study and define sanity?
One dictionary asserts that sanity is “the lack of insanity.” Another was equally bereft of facts: “the quality or condition of being sane.”
These revolving definitions leave us with the question: would we recognize sanity if we saw it? How can we strive for it if we don’t even know what it is?
Well, I think one person has recognized and defined the ultimate sanity: Al Siebert, PhD in a book called The Survivor Personality. While he doesn’t use the word “sanity,” his book describes in detail the characteristics of people who are stronger, smarter and more skillful at handling life’s difficulties and challenges.
If asked “What do you really want?” we might say we want a jazzy sports car, to start a rock band, to run away and join the circus, to hit a home run out of Yankee Stadium, star in our own reality show or be as thin as Calista Flockhart.
But senior to all other desires, the strongest motivation of every life form (from amoebae to parsnips) is simply to survive.
I know, it’s so basic, so tacitly understood, that most of us wouldn’t even enter it on our want list.
Yet, survival isn’t something we should take for granted. Some are better at it than others. Two people might be exposed to the same devastating experience. One may endure it and emerge with a positive outlook, having benefitted from the challenge. Another might die or, years later, be still crouching in the corner mewling, “Why me?”
The Survivor Personality was published in 1993, but its information is as pertinent today as it was then.
As a psychologist, Dr. Siebert spent over 40 years studying people who were survivors of torture, accidents, life-threatening illness, losses, disasters, prison camps, plane crashes and other distressing experiences. In each case, they had overcome traumatic hardships by their own personal efforts and emerged with newly discovered strengths and abilities. Afterward these people, every one of them, said that the experience had been valuable to them.
The book is a compilation of their stories and the characteristics these remarkable people have in common. More than anything, The Survivor Personality is a guidebook, a study in sanity. What could be more sane than surviving against great odds?
Of course, a turtle or a turnip might be satisfied with merely surviving, but we mortals want more than that. We want to thrive. We want some laughs, some thrills, some challenging work, some triumphs, some warm-hearted companionship. Some stuff.
Dr. Siebert’s book is more than a manual on how to cope if your plane has to make an emergency landing in the middle of the Amazon forest. It’s a guide to living a good life in general. At some time, most of us are faced with emergencies, setbacks and disappointments. The important thing is that we don’t give up. We take a deep breath and look for solutions. It also helps to know the characteristics we need in order to be more capable when we encounter reversals—major or minor.
Dr. Siebert says that the qualities of the survivor can be learned, but they cannot be taught. An intriguing distinction.
So, in the midst of all the whackos, fruitcakes and ding-a-lings around us on this planetary funny farm, we find a few exceptionally sane individuals who have undergone extreme tests of courage and endurance to emerge as level-headed, capable individuals—exemplary people.
Primarily, Dr. Siebert discovered, such people are flexible and resilient. They can adapt to a given situation. They’re well-adjusted, have a sense of humor and enjoy life. They are not the drama queens who squeeze every gasp of histrionics out of a situation, rather than facing reality and finding solutions.
Some lazy writers like to pigeonhole people: the baby boomers, hippies, yuppies, the “me” generation, the “now” generation, Generation X, Generation Y (or Millenials or Echo Boomers) and now Generation Z. They seem to think we’re all born in pre-programmed clumps every ten years.
Survivors defy such simplistic classifications. They may be strong yet gentle, mature but playful, humorous and serious, extroverted and introverted, proud and humble, creative and logical. They are not likely to be hard-core conservatives or bleeding-heart liberals. While they may vote for a certain party, it’s likely that they will share many viewpoints with the other side. They are neither too dependent nor too independent.
Labels don’t describe them. They are not comfortable with a magazine quiz that queries: Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Are you critical or non-judgmental? Are you confident or self-doubting?
Where most dichotomies are concerned, survivors may be either, both or neither—at any given time. They’re flexible.
“Ugh! I would never do that—no matter what!” My friend, Julie, was emphatic. I had just told her about World War II POWs who had to eat food containing maggots and weevils in order to survive. Some of those POWs died because they refused to eat.
Now, maggots and weevils are not my idea of haute cuisine. And if the queen should drop in for dinner some evening, I’m not going to offer her an appetizer of creepy crawly things (even if she begs for them).
But if it comes down to raw survival, I won’t say “never.” I think I would opt to survive. In my mind, it sure beats the alternative.
Charles Darwin, who knew a lot about the subject, summed the matter up quite well when he said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent—it is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
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©2010 by Ruth Minshull