I didn’t get it. I was alive. My husband and I, our dogs and our cockatiel drove through fire and came through unscathed. Unlike 12 of our neighbors, who never made it out at all.
As one of our other neighbors put it: "We buried the victims. The rest of us are survivors."
But not everyone affected by the fire felt that way. Some people seemed to embrace the "victim" label. They even introduced themselves in public meetings as “fire victims.”
They were so bitter, so desperate to blame someone for their pain. And the fascinating thing was: it didn’t seem to matter how much or how little they'd lost.
I went on to write The Fire Outside My Window: A Survivor Tells the True Story of California's Epic Cedar Fire, and in in my research, I interviewed well over 100 people, including two families who had each lost three loved ones. And yet they were not the bitter ones.
The most bitter people I met were upset about losing their garages. Their families, their animals and their homes were all safe. That’s when I realized: It's a choice.
We don’t always get to choose what happens to us. But we can always choose our response.
You can be a victim. Or you can be a survivor. No matter how terrible your circumstances, you get to choose.
Of course, I wasn’t the first to learn this lesson. Here’s how psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl expressed it:
"Everything can be taken from a man [or a woman] but one thing--the last of the human freedoms: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Obviously, my experience can’t compare to Viktor Frankl’s. But still, I related so deeply with Frankl’s thoughts that I got this hunch the steps in coming back from adversity might be the same no matter what the loss.
So I did some research and found out it was true. In fact, academics and psychologists have studied this topic extensively. They call it “RESILIENCE.”
There’s even a subset in the resilience literature that documents a phenomenon known as “post traumatic growth syndrome.” Meaning some people use a challenge as fuel to achieve tremendous accomplishments.
But what’s even more fascinating to me is that resilience is a SKILL that can be learned. So there are steps anyone can take to help them recover from almost any kind of adversity. I’ve boiled them down to what I call:
THE COMEBACK FORMULA™
Before I ever knew the steps of the Comeback Formula™, I lived them. Here they are.
- COME to a place of gratitude.
- Finding something to be thankful for is the best way to rise above anger and bitterness, so that you can look forward and begin to heal. If nothing else, you can be grateful simply for being alive.
- Believe you can come back.
- It may not feel like it at the time, but the evidence is all around us. Winter eventually turns into spring. Even in Boston. Resilience is the way of the world; it’s in our DNA.
- Accept help. Ask for it when you need it.
- When adversity strikes, family, friends and sometimes total strangers will rush in, trying to help you in all sorts of ways. It may feel awkward. Embarrassing even. Accept it anyway. As one of my friends told me after the fire: “Your job right now is to be a grateful recipient.”
- Choose your response to adversity. Victim or survivor? You do get to choose!
- Kiss the past goodbye. It’s not coming back. But it is possible to build a new normal that’s in many ways richer than before.
So that's my ComeBACK Formula™. I use it now even for minor setbacks and disappointments. What do you think? Let me know if it works for you!