when life will never be the same again – finding purpose after tragedy
“I know that I’m not my body, and I also know you’re not yours. And then it no longer matters what you look like, where you come from or what you do for a living. All that matters is that we continue to fan the flame of humanity by living our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are” – Janine Shepard
Janine Shepard was training to represent her country at the winter Olympics when she was hit by a truck, breaking most of her body, including both her neck and back and losing 5 litres of blood. She spent 10 days hovering between life and death (and aware of that) before making a decision to return to her broken body. She spent over 6 months in a spinal ward, was told that she would never be able to move normally again and to expect a lifetime of health issues from this experience. She was told to expect to be depressed, never to have children and that life would never be the same.
And it wasn’t. As she felt the sunlight on her face for the first time after being in the spinal unit for 6 months she asked herself “How could I ever have taken this for granted?”. She looked up in the sky one day, saw a plane and decided, well if I can’t walk, I can fly. She turned up at the local flying school in a body cast, unable to use her legs, asked them to teach her to fly. Determined to pass the medical, she learnt to walk again. Passed her medical, passed all the tests until she was a flight instructor (who could walk) at the same school where she turned up as a partial paraplegic a mere 18 months previously. And since then she has also had 3 children.
Janine Shepard transformed her life. From preparing to compete at the Olympics to facing what could be seen by a young athlete as the cruelest outcome of losing the ability to walk and use your body. To a realisation that who she really was and her true purpose, was not about what she did or what she looked like. It was about living who she really was.
Her experience, and her technique of creating meaning (using the goal of flying to re-learn how to walk which led to a whole new relationship with life and purpose), reminded me of the work by Viktor E. Frankl. Dr Frankl was a pyschiatrist who was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps during WWII. After his release, he wrote a small book which he published in 1946 called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning”. This small book now has over 20 million copies around the world.
In the midst of the most immense horror, Dr Frankl was able to first hand observe and experience what kept people alive in the most extenuating circumstances. What he found was that the way a prisoner imagined the future, affected how long he stayed alive. He observed how fellow inmates, convinced that on a certain date they would be saved, would survive until the day after that date, their sense of meaning and purpose gone.
From his experiences, Dr Frankl determined that this sense of meaning is the primary motivation for life. He describes this as “This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone”. He also states “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself”.
Although Dr Frankl and Janine Shepard use different words to express these concepts, I believe they are coming from the same place. That we all have both the gift and responsibility of being an unique being with a set of talents and skills and way of interacting with the world that belongs only to us. That our purpose is to express and live who we really are. That who we really are is far vaster and incredible than our physical brains can comprehend. We know we are made of atoms and quantum physicists are continuing to prove how deeply we are connected, not just with other human beings, but with all life on earth. That we are part of something far bigger than an individual self.
So how do we move from being inspired by stories of incredible beings like Janine Shepard and Dr Frankl, to understanding and knowing that we too have this ability to be incredible, to live who we really are. How can we go through such a transformation of how we interact with life without having to go through tragedy ?
I’ll leave you with Janine’s TEDx talk (which is amazing) along with those questions. I’d love to know any thoughts you have about this, feel free to contact me directly or leave a comment below.