From Surviving to Thriving

This piece originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on October 14, 2018.

We all accumulate scars in life, some more penetrating than others. How – and why — do some people falter, some survive, and yet others thrive?

That question so intrigued Emma J. Bell that she stepped away from a judgeship to pursue the answer.

Resilience – the ability to rise above, to bounce rather than break under the weight of life’s trials – is a hot topic. Professionals study the role of resilience in our personal and professional lives. Survivors of an array of situations write memoirs and hit the speaking circuit, sharing stories designed to assure others that if we’ve made it through the muck you can, too.

But Bell was interested in more than just surviving. Why did some people thrive?

In her work as an attorney, judge, and coach in the United Kingdom, Bell observed that people did not respond to adversity uniformly. Some became victims of their circumstances, others found perspective and moved forward, often stronger and better than before.

She’d also experienced that in her personal life. While a tumultuous upbringing left its mark on her siblings and mother, they responded to the same circumstances quite differently. Her brother struggled with drugs and alcohol. Her mother and sister have not had an easy go of it, she explained in a recent interview.

Bell was determined to achieve success. She worked long hours, becoming a partner at one of Scotland’s premier law firms by age 30. On the exterior she looked like she had it all. But there was a disconnect between her outward appearance and her psyche. A message from her childhood haunted her: Unless she was perfect she was unlovable.

The disconnect became unbearable.

Her marriage failed.

One day she drove onto a bridge and weighed her options. Killing herself would be simple. But she couldn’t do it.

She immersed herself in study and self-reflection and underwent a profound change. She was able to love herself and accept she was OK just as she was. And, though she continued to work long hours, she was happier than she had ever been.

She found new love and remarried.

She began to feel an unexpected call to action. If she could discover the secret to thriving she could develop a blueprint to help others to thrive in the face of both ordinary and extraordinary stress and trauma. With strategies in hand, she posited, people could learn to manage anxiety and find true happiness and fulfillment.

The Global Resilience Project was born.

Bell partnered with psychologist and author Paul Hannam to test a premise on 50 people: Regardless of the nature of the challenge or trauma, the socio-economic status, race or culture of the person enduring it, those who don’t just survive, but thrive, share common resilience strategies.

With criteria in hand, Bell scoured websites, read hundreds of books and blogs by and about people who’d endured myriad challenges. While there were many accounts of individuals who had bounced back from adversity, only those who had found meaning in their tragedy and were committed to helping others were considered for the project.

Anticipating she wouldn’t be the same person after undertaking what she imagined would be transformative work, she asked her husband, Graeme, to join her on the journey. Together they’ve traveled to five continents, accumulating 35,000 miles, considerable debt, and extraordinary stories. As Bell gently extracted stories from men, women and children who’d suffered at the hands of humans, Mother Nature, and rotten luck, Graeme captured their stories on video.

Stories involve abuse, death, illness, divorce, physical and mental health challenges and suicide. Thrivers lost loved ones to terrorists and dementia and heart disease. They’ve lost limbs and liberty. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress.

With the bulk of the interviews complete, Bell has identified nine strategies mentioned by at least 80 percent of the thrivers, the first of which is self-care. By combining stories with strategies offered through a retrospective lens, she plans to create both a diagnostic tool and a blueprint for survivors to follow.

Once she’s secured a book publisher she will share the results of her work through writing, speaking, conferences, podcasts, and coaching. “50Thriver” videos are regularly posted on Twitter and in a public Facebook group called 50Thrivers.

I learned about Bell when she emailed me last November. She’d read an essay of mine on in which I wrote about the parade of challenges I’ve faced since childhood. Could we meet?

Intrigued by the project but unsure of my suitability, I met her last January. Citing the cumulation of my life challenges and my commitment to help others to learn from my experiences, Bell convinced me that, under her criteria, I’m a thriver.

But she was interested in my perspective. She’d read my book, “Bitter or Better,” and knew that I had lived much of my life as a glass-is-half-empty person. How had I made the shift? How, eight years after I suddenly became a widow with a blended family of four, including an adult son with autism, was I thriving?

There’s no simple answer. But I came to realize this life won’t last forever. Having lived many years in a protective emotional cocoon, always fearful of the next heartache, I realized there could be life after unimaginable loss. With little downside, I have opened my heart more than ever before. I’ve taken chances that reaped huge rewards. I learned there can be love after loss. Newly remarried, I am now living with my heart fully engaged.