Traumatic life events, such as being injured in accidents, often serve to define who we are as human beings. The same traumatic event can leave one person’s life decimated while others may be propelled to greater accomplishments and life satisfaction than would have been likely without the traumatic event. How do we explain such striking contrasts?
After several decades of clinical work as a psychologist specializing in trauma treatment, I have come to believe the key factor predicting such outcomes is the element of life purpose. This vital factor was discovered by Viktor Frankl during his ordeal surviving four different Nazi concentration camps and became the cornerstone of his form of psychotherapy, known as logo therapy. Does the person own a powerful sense of their life’s work, or mission, that fuels them with passion, and fills them with meaning? Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
YouTube is filled with inspirational videos that document the stories of people who overcame great traumatic life events and went on to inspire others. Besides the element of finding one’s life purpose, resilience and perseverance are often central in stories of overcoming great adversity. I often watch these YouTube videos when I am feeling down and in need of inspiration. A friend recently told me about one such person, Major Brian Shul, whose speeches you can find on YouTube. He has an amazing story that will inspire many people who have suffered serious injuries.
When Brian was a young Air Force fighter pilot, he was shot down and crashed in the jungles of Vietnam near the Cambodian border. He tells about how he realized he was likely going to die in a matter of seconds when he was unable to eject from the disabled plane. He comforted himself by believing he would soon open his eyes to find himself in heaven. Instead, when he opened his eyes he found himself engulfed in fire and smoke, and thought he must have gone to the other place. Brian has a disarming sense of humor that has no doubt served him well.
Against all odds, he was rescued by Special Forces and transported to a medical facility. Badly burned, he was given a very poor survival prognosis. After a year in a military hospital and undergoing at least fifteen surgeries, he regained his desire to live and became committed to regaining his health and flying again in the military. Over the objections of many superior officers he passed all of his medical tests and was returned to full duty as a pilot. Even more amazing, he applied to fly in the SR-71 Blackbird program, a top secret strategic reconnaissance aircraft, the fastest ever constructed at the time. The SR-71 flew at an altitude of 90,000 feet and could exceed speeds of Mach 3—over 2,000 miles per hour. Acceptance into the program required Brian to qualify medically as an astronaut that involved two days of intensive medical and physical tests. No one but Brian believed he could make it. He did pass and became a highly accomplished SR-71 pilot, and flew many dangerous missions around the world during the Cold War.
So what was Brian’s secret that helped him to not only survive horrific injuries, but to return to a life that in many ways surpassed other highly trained, physically fit officers who were never injured?
He talks about maintaining his dream and always looking at the world through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, filled with hope, and not believing anything but a yes would be delivered from the universe. While visibly scared, Brian appears to be one of the most fulfilled, and happy men you could encounter. Had he listened to all the medical experts and superior officers, he might have lived out his life feeling like a defeated victim, damaged, disabled and without worth.
Stories such as Major Shul's remind us there are sometimes forces at work greater than the medical facts in the case. He could image himself flying again and having a purpose filled life. As Einstein famously said, sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge. It is our dreams that strengthen our resilience and inspire us and others in this amazing and sometimes scary journey of life. We must daily fight to keep our dreams alive in order to thrive and reach our full potentials.