7 reasons why heroes thrive while others are falling apart

It was 3:34 a.m. in Lota, Chile when Marta woke up to screams and a deep rumbling sound. Everything shook, and when she tried to stand up, she felt like a sailor in a storm. She reached for the walls to steady herself, but they shook and trembled. She didn’t know it yet, but she was near the epicenter of the strongest earthquake to hit Chile since May 1960. Her motherly instinct took over. She ran to her daughters’ bedroom and quickly ushered them out of the house and onto the park across the street. Her husband was working the night shift at a factory nearby, so she was in charge of caring for the kids.

The ground continued to shake in waves as maroon dust rose up. Residents poured out of their houses and apartments onto the neighborhood square park. Chaos prevailed. When the electricity went out, and everything went dark, panic overcame the crowd as hundreds of people frantically tried to locate their loved ones.

The cold ocean breeze penetrated the bones of adults and children. Amid the chaos and desperate screaming, Marta began to gather parents and huddle the children. Soon she had them lay blankets on the ground and instructed the children to lay down like sardines and covered them with blankets. This way they would keep them warm and safe. 

Then Marta noticed that patients from the hospital on the corner were standing out in the cold, shivering in their light hospital gowns. Marta located a neighbor who owned a bus, and she ordered him to park the bus in front of the hospital. Soon she found volunteers to help the frigid elderly patients get onto the bus. When the bus was full, they closed the doors to keep out the cold breeze. While most people panicked or were falling apart, Marta stayed calm and focused on helping others.

Why is it that some people can stay calm in situations that provoke panic and chaos in everyone else? Marta certainly fulfilled the role of a hero during that early morning earthquake.  It raises the question, “Why do heroes thrive while others are falling apart?”

I’ve identified 7 characteristics of survivors.

  1. In spite of the “shock” and “initial numbness,” survivors take quick actions to survive.

In the case of Marta, she quickly gathered her daughters and got them out of the house.

  • Survivors gather resources and assets. Marta organized her neighbors to protect the children. She located a neighbor with a bus to provide temporary shelter for elderly hospital patients.
  • While others may be asking “why?”, survivors are able to “collect themselves” or “get their act together” and take actions to save themselves and others. Marta never shrunk into a fetal position. She had no time to feel sorry for herself. Her focus remained on actions to help others.
  • Survivors discover some meaning or purpose (in the event) or following the disaster. In Sri Lanka, I visited a make-shift village of refugees from the Asian Tsunami of December 2004. A grandmother shared her story; she lost all her family in the tsunami, and looked around and saw many children who had lost their parents. She began taking in children and offering them shelter and a temporary home. She found life meaning and purpose in taking care of children.
  • Survivors move from despair to hope.

Survivors are resilient. Perhaps they have lived through many natural disasters or setbacks in life and have recovered from their losses. They don’t drown in despair, but rather seek to rebuild their lives. They re-define hope for a drastically changed future.

  • Survivors never give up.

Survivors seem to have an inner core of spirituality that motivates them to keep going even when others give up. Perhaps they intuitively get in touch with their core values. Perhaps they have a core belief that God will be there for them whatever the future may hold. Did I mention that Marta is a pastor? Perhaps her faith grounded her amid the chaos.

  • Survivors make an inner decision to re-build their lives.

Having visited areas that were devastated by hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, I have heard a common theme from survivors. “We are alive; that’s all that matters.” They may have lost all material possessions and may have lost countless friends and family members, but the realization that they could have easily died creates a feeling of gratitude for life itself. Rajan lost his home and his job in the tsunami. He worked as a bellboy in a seaside tourist hotel in Sri Lanka. When the tsunami came ashore, it swept away his family home and so damaged the hotel that it closed. He would have been out of a job anyway because tourism fell flat In the aftermath of the tsunami. He and his family moved into a shack up the hill away from the ocean, and he began to slowly re-build his life. As the oldest son, in his culture, he had the responsibility to take care of his family. He went back to school and became a hotel manager. He’s a survivor.

I suggest that many characteristics of survivors are rooted in their spirituality. A desire to live, to help others, to find life meaning in the aftermath of a disaster, all seem to have spiritual qualities. Some people think of spirituality as limited to one’s relationship with God, but seen in the perspective of survivors of natural disasters, we can see that spirituality includes dimensions such as hope, life meaning, values, beliefs, resilience, and love for the neighbor. 

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me

there lay an invincible summer.

                                                                              Albert Camus