The Art of Survival: An Interview with Jerry White
Jerry White is the co-founder of Survivor Corps (formerly Landmine Survivors Newwork). His life changed in 1984 when he lost his leg in a landmine explosion while visiting Israel. After this experience he has championed the cause of survivorship and became a leader in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. In 1997 this organization, Jerry, and Jody Williams shared the Nobel Peace Prize. He recently published a book called I Will Not Be Broken: Five Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis.
Question: What do people who are undergoing a life crisis need most?
Answer: We crave empathy and support. We need to know that someone out there—anyone!—who understands what we are going through. Yes, there are emergency “things” we need like safety, food, shelter, direct assistance; but ultimately we are social beings in search of social connection and meaning.
Question: What do they need most from their government?
Answer: Governments add most value during emergency situations when they address macro issues such as rule of law, security, resource mobilization, strategic communications, respect for human rights without discrimination and coordination of services. Unfortunately, recent examples of Hurricane Katrina and the current mortgage crises suggest that government too often fails us, and is slow to react to mass destruction. It takes a village to survive emergencies, with help from the private sector, social sector and public sector. No single government agency or sector can do it all. We need our neighbors and civil society to come through for us. It is always a mistake to wait passively for bureaucracies and government agencies to “save” us.
Question: What are the key stages of overcoming a crisis?
Answer: In the face of crisis and catastrophe, we are afraid. Our first temptation is to fight the facts or flee from the facts. But to overcome, we must get our mind around the truth of our lives and circumstances. Here are five steps that survivors worldwide have used to overcome a life crisis:
Face facts. This awful thing has happened. I can’t roll back the clock. This sucks.
Choose life, not death. I want to find hope; create options for a positive future.
Reach out. No one survives alone. Isolation will kill us. Let others into our lives.
Get moving. You have to get up and out of the house. Do your “survivor sit-ups.”
Give back. Become a benefactor not just a beneficiary. Yes, you will add value.
Question: How can people be expected to “give back” when so much has been taken from them?
Answer: The most generous can be found among the poorest of the poor, people who experienced crisis and poverty themselves. Many have discovered that the key to finding joy lies in giving back to our communities. Many of us exert enormous effort just to survive life, but when we learn to give again, in small and big ways, we gain in strength. Giving keeps us from slipping back into a victim mentality.
None of the survivors I work with, from Bosnia to Vietnam to Ethiopia, wants to be dependent on our charity or pity. They want a chance to get back in the game. That’s why each and every survivor we work with agrees to perform community service. For example, if we help a survivor get a fake leg or find a job, then he or she is obligated to help another survivor in their community. Sometimes it’s as simple as a roof repair, or sharing of food. Everyone feels better after giving again. Does anyone out there feel good being in someone else’s “charitable” debt?
Question: Is it accepting the impact of such a crisis the best case or can people go beyond and thrive or be stronger than before the crisis?
Answer: Acceptance is just the beginning…slowly, we start to “face facts” to break through initial denial and fear. When life explodes, our first instinct is “fight” or “flight.” We rage at what as happened or we run from it. These are short-term survival instincts, but not healthy long-term survivorship strategies needed to get through tough times. And just “getting through” is not our primary life objective.
We humans have an uncanny ability to reframe our thoughts and choose to find meaning in our scars. Thousands of survivors we have interviewed talk about growing stronger after a catastrophe. But they made healthy choices along the way; it was no accident that they rediscovered joy after debilitating loss.
Question: Still, even for the “thrivers,” do you think they would want whatever happened to happen to them again?
Answer: I never give “good press” to a “bad thing.” To this day, I wish I had never stepped on that landmine in Israel and lost my right leg. I don’t romanticize the pain nor do I give any credit for my thriving to landmines—they are lethal military litter that daily maims and kills innocent men, women, and children. I don’t know any rape survivor who would put a positive spin on sexual violence, nor any cancer survivor who fancies cancer and chemotherapy.
The key to thriving is not the “thing” but our determination to choose the survivor path, en route to a healthy and positive future. Life can wound us terribly, but we, thankfully, are more than the sum of our wounds. We can choose our response to tragedy and trauma. As the cheerful but hackneyed saying goes, we can “make lemonade out of lemons.” Still, lemons never stop being sour, do they?
Question: What differentiates someone who will overcome or even thrive from someone who will be defeated by a crisis?
Answer: People who overcome and thrive are those who have learned to “rise above” their injuries and “give back” to their communities. People are defeated by their crisis if they become their crisis, letting it rule their lives. The key is to recognize a crisis for what it is—a turning point and an opportunity.
I refused to let a landmine rob more than my leg. It couldn’t make me less of a whole person unless I let it do so. I would never define myself by a piece of me or by one aspect of my past. I don’t think of myself as “an amputee”…just a regular guy who happens to be missing a leg. Survivors who believe they are more than their bodies have an advantage. Faith and a sense of humor are hallmarks of resilient personalities.
Question: Do you think there are fundamental differences between starting an organization like Survivor Corps and a for-profit company?
Answer: I don’t see a big difference. The entrepreneurial impulse is the same across borders, even when there are different motives behind it. Some search for profits; others seek “higher profits.” Still, a balance sheet is a balance sheet. Cash flow is what it is. Revenue and expenses are simple math for any company or nonprofit organization. I have spent my whole professional career as a social sector guy because I am primarily motivated to address the mass market of growing numbers of marginalized people in need. I don’t call them “customers” or “clients,” but others could.
As I earned my MBA from the University of Michigan, I was increasingly convinced that the dynamics of organizational development are the same for non-profits and for-profits alike. I do think businesses could learn more from the nonprofit sector, particularly with regard to tapping into intrinsic motivation, mission drive and passion. “Increasing shareholder value” is not a sustainable mission statement or business strategy. Employees want and deserve more.
Question: What are the challenges of starting an organization that serves people thousands of miles away from most of your supporters?
Answer: It is a challenge for people to feel empathy and compassion across oceans. It’s a fact of life that most charitable giving, like politics, is local. Less than three percent of American private philanthropy goes to international causes or organizations. Americans are very generous, but most of their gifts go to churches, synagogues, hospitals, schools and cultural institutions in our backyards.
I once sat in on a focus group and heard many participants admit they would be more likely to give to an international organization like Survivor Corps if they also knew we were helping survivors here at home, such as veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. And we are. The United States is a very war-affected nation. We must have strategies to reach out and connect conflict survivors to offer support and promote successful community reintegration after war and violence.
Question: What’s your step-by-step recommendation for someone who wants to “change the world” like you have?
Answer: Look at your own life circumstances and take the Survivor Pledge: 1) I will not be a victim. 2) I will rise above. 3) I will give back. 4) I will change the world.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama once told me, “We have to remove the landmines from our own hearts first, before we can fully demine the world and bring peace.” So take a peak within, then gain some perspective to rise above self-centeredness and reach out to others in need. It can be scary at first because it requires us to get out of our comfort zones and cross boundaries and barriers to meet people who seem different, marginalized, threatening at first.
The question becomes not whether to be a global citizen—we all are—but how best to become an active one. And it gets personal, because you have to get to know yourself and ask: Who am I? What do I care about? What am I good at? How can I help appropriately? And then align these things in our lives, our work, our giving patterns. Give locally; act globally. Or give globally; act locally. Do it your way by mixing it up, have fun as you learn your unique value-add place in the world. Turns out that giving is simply good for you. Like exercise, it boosts your serotonin levels.
Question: What exactly happens when you win a Nobel Prize?
Answer: It was certainly exciting to be in Oslo in December 1997, joining with leaders of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. A few weeks earlier, we had gathered together in DC to hear the news and jump for joy. The ceremonies are exquisite, replete with great musical performances and speeches and an audience with the Norwegian Royal Family. All heady stuff, and great fun.
But, as we raised our champagne glasses, I worried that this public attention would move on from landmines, even as our work had only just begun. Tens of millions of mines still had to be destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of mine victims and their families desperately need our help. 1997 was a big year for our survivor movement. We worked closely with Diana, Princess of Wales. We launched innovative survivor networks worldwide. We helped draft and negotiate the historic 1997 Mine Ban Treaty—the first arms control treaty with specific obligations to help the victims of a weapon recover and reintegrate.
Ten years later, we reunited in Oslo, Norway, to celebrate our progress. Today, casualty rates are down from 26,000 victims per year to south of 8,000 (still too many, but progress nonetheless). Tens of millions of mine have been destroyed and demined. Survivor Rights are starting to be recognized worldwide. Still more to be done, but a great survivor success story, worthy of the Nobel Prize of Peace. We are both proud and humbled to share this honor.
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