CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Breast cancer survivor. Prostate cancer survivor. Plane crash survivor.
What do you think of when you hear these terms? Relief? Gratitude? Pride? Obviously, it depends on the context. A personal challenge - or that of a family member or close friend - will, no doubt, evoke more emotion than a description of a complete stranger's experience.
And then there are the national disasters that grab our attention and tug on our collective emotions. Ever since Baby Jessica fell down that well years ago and we all got live updates on TV, there have been nationwide sighs - or gasps - when these episodes occur.
Which brings to mind the recent averted disaster of US Airways Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River, along with its 155 survivors. I don't know about you, but I can't help wondering how those lives have been touched and changed by the experience. It's all so raw right now, but it will be interesting to follow the survivors' stories to see how this life-threatening experience has affected them.
Like me, you've likely followed the journeys of friends or family members who have come through major challenges. You may even be a survivor yourself. These life challenges are the very things that test our character, and I never tire of listening to the insights gained by those going through such situations.
A friend of mine who is a breast cancer survivor has told me that getting cancer was such a gift. You might wonder why someone would express things this way. Or you may have felt the same thing yourself.
My friend says she knows exactly why she got cancer. She needed a wakeup call to pay attention to things in her life. Over time, she changed careers and re-evaluated her primary relationship. Not that that's the path for everyone. Personal journeys are just that: personal.
It often seems that the best insights - and the perseverance to act on them - come from the darkest nights of the soul. It's almost as if the deepest challenges give us "permission" to stop and look at our lives, rather than to keep on going on automatic pilot.
Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow has said, "When you get cancer, you get to do what you want to do." And documentary filmmaker Kris Carr, author of "Crazy, Sexy Cancer" says, "Cancer was a catalyst. I had permission to dump my baggage and take risks."
But why do we feel we need permission in the first place? I think it's because it's just not practical to make wholesale changes in our lives - particularly in these challenging times - even when we know certain situations are eating away at us. Maybe it's an unhealthy work situation - or a toxic relationship. As human beings it's generally our nature to want to pull away from pain rather than propel ourselves toward pleasure. And the pain has to get bad enough to cause us to take action.