After a devastating breakup with her longtime boyfriend, Jackie plunged into a deep despair. “I was in a fog – a fog that wouldn’t lift,” said the 29-year old marketing manager. There were times Jackie said she didn’t know if she was alive or dead, awake or asleep, coming or going. The acute pain pervaded every moment, every molecule.
That is until one day in August, when Jackie – like millions of rapt Americans – watched incredulously as Gabrielle Giffords climbed those Capitol Hill steps and telegraphed to the world without saying a single world what the congressional representative really represents: indomitable resolve.
The typical “woe is me” refrain is not an uncommon one for women who have suffered a tremendous loss or setback – when we feel like an injustice has been done, that we’ve been wronged, or that we don’t deserve this.
And in no way minimizing a legitimately depressing derailment, we’re right: No one “deserves” a terrible blow – in whatever form – whether it’s a left-field breakup, a health setback, or, in Rep. Giffords’ case, a point blank shooting in the head.
When we all watched the Giffords shooting in disbelief in January, it put into perspective what nothing else at the moment really could – not friends’ consolation, stacks of self-help books or retail therapy – that it could always be worse. That whatever disappointment we’re experiencing – however tragic it may feel – could always be worse.
That’s a mantra my grandfather always espoused – “It could always be worse” – whenever I’d air a grievance about some bully in school or an ex-boyfriend getting engaged. And when a Holocaust survivor tells you that there are always worse things in life, you believe him.
That’s why the remarkable “comeback” of Giffords is particularly moving. This is a woman who could have easily faded into the background and never be heard from again. Instead, she has decided not only to come back – but she’s back with a vengeance, determined to get well, get back on her feet, and get back to work.
There’s no more vivid portrait of resolve and resilience than that. And instead of feeling bad about herself for feeding into self-indulgent sorrow, Giffords’ story “has absolutely lifted me out of my malaise like nothing else has,” Jackie admits.
The thunderous applause in Congress that summer day wasn’t all about the vote being passed. When Gabrielle Giffords emerged from the crowd of congressmen for the first time since the attack eight months earlier, everyone in that chamber rooted for a comeback that most people would have written off as impossible.
But what Giffords’ tremendous strength teaches us is that it’s about staging a comeback – about overcoming a personal tragedy, however major, and still coming out your best self on the other side. Giffords’ Herculean recovery and comeback teaches all of us about the power of resilience and resolve.
She climbed Capitol Hill – and it serves as a lesson to all of us that we can scale any hurdle too.
It teaches us that we can overcome personal tragedy — with perseverance and tenacity, no matter how powerless we might feel now. Gabby has shown us that retreating and curling up and dying isn’t an option; it’s just about the easiest way out.
Never count yourself out. And don’t let anyone else count you out, either! You can sit and play dead – or you can decide to live and come back stronger – after a health problem, debilitating breakup, death of loved one, etc.
Serena Williams faced a dangerous health problem early this year that turned out to be a pulmonary embolism – not that you’d know it from her stellar tennis season this summer and can-do attitude that she has always so gracefully exemplified.
It’s no coincidence that these women – Giffords and Williams – are where they are. There happens to be a reason for it: there are a million smart, politically-involved women. There are a million strong tennis players. It’s the ones with ferocious tenacity, self-confidence, motivation and zero self-pity who endure, who survive and who thrive.
Each one of us can learn a lesson from Giffords’ amazing story of survival and apply it to our own lives. We all have varying degrees of struggle –some more than others – but the common denominator is that we have to rise about the setbacks and the horrible blows and be a fighter.
She is clearly a fighter – but what does it take for everyday women to do that? Simple: the decision not to shrivel up in bed and never come out again. It might seem daunting to make that mental switch and decide you want to live – and not just merely hang on and survive, but live life to the fullest, and come back stronger than before.
But there’s no greater feeling when you can say “I survived this! I made it through to the other side!” when you do. We can all learn a lesson from the graceful Giffords about our untapped power to persevere and the ability to summon hidden reserves of strength we didn’t know we had in us.
When we’re befallen by personal tragedy and make the conscious choice – and make no mistake it is a conscious decision – to defeat it, that is succeeding. So whether it be heartbreak, health issues or any other derailment, let’s take a cue from Gabby and spin a crushing negative into an actionable positive.
Doree Lewak is a New York-based author. Her most recent book is The Panic Years (Broadway Books).