“The original definition of courage when it first came into the English language, from the Latin word ‘cor’, meaning ‘heart’, was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” – Brené Brown, TED Lecture, 2010
Some years ago I did what looked like a crazy thing. Over a three year period, as I traveled the United States for my work as a trainer of therapists, I put out the word that I wanted to interview people who had attempted suicide, and specifically, people who, through their own hard work, and the assiduous care of others, reclaimed the qualities of balance, perspective, connectedness and happiness in their lives. People who came back to life, literally from death’s door.
Partly, it came from my training as a researcher. I was taught that if you wanted to understand a deep part of human experience, in this case psychological and emotional healing, it was essential to listen to and chronicle the stories of those who had truly been there; who had powerfully experienced it's entire arc. This is called participatory research and it’s less about statistics and more about “stepping into someone else’s shoes” in order to derive a true sense of what it’s like.
And, partly, it came from a quirky optimism I seem to have, that arose both in working with others, but also in my own life; a recognition that when we are pushed to the edge, up against the wall…really challenged by significant life issues, that that wall represents the edge of the box we are trapped in; the box we rummage around in that generates a lot of suffering for ourselves, and most often, for our loved ones. So, bad news-good news. The bad news is that we suffer, often caught in this box of limited perspective and constricted narratives. The good news, is that when we are up against the edge, the inside wall, we are only a hairs-breath away from jumping out of the box altogether!
So, I traveled the country, sitting with people, in their homes or in nature, often for three, four, or five hours at a time, listening to and recording their stories, sometimes harrowing and unflinching in detail. But listening particularly to the parts of the story that detailed how people began to embrace life again, and humbly, little by little, came to believe again – in possibility, in others, and, blessedly, in themselves. I discovered that these deeply personal stories, were also universal stories. I learned that in listening without prejudice or fear, these stories shed much light on precisely how all of us can bring ourselves back to life…not only from the brink of life and death; not just in a suicidal context, but with regard to the dizzying array of other challenges all of us face in our lives. Those I interviewed told their stories, with a full and open heart, both to help others, and so that one day, others wouldn’t have a story like that of their own to tell. I was blown away by their courage. Still am.
A final note: In writing Waking Up, Alive, it was not my intention to create another trend or another series of identities through which people can define themselves. In fact, it is my fervent hope that as we move further into the 21st Century, people will define themselves in terms of their strengths and their potential rather than their wounds. I have undertaken this work in order to break the silence to which so many—be they survivors of suicide attempts or the enormous number of people who secretly contemplate the act—have sentenced themselves, and to open communication between those who have attempted and those who haven’t. Ultimately, this book was written for everyone, for each person bears his or her share of pain, and everyone has felt stuck at one point or another in his or her life. I chose to write Waking Up, Alive so that we may remember that there always exists a “yes” after what seems to be the final “no.”
I hope that in some small measure these words may alleviate suffering in the mysterious world in which we live.
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