To Be The Victim Or The Victor: Which Do You Choose?

By Eva M. Selhub, M.D.

At 19, Joshua Prager was paralyzed on his left side after a devastating car accident in Israel. In his TED Talk, Prager tells the tale of the accident and how 20 years later, he went back to find the man, Abed, who broke his neck to hear these two word, “I’m sorry.”

Prager talks about his journey to find Abed, a journey that did not just involve getting on a plane and traveling for miles in a foreign country, but a journey that involved searching his own soul and life for meaning, throwing out such questions as “What if the accident didn’t happen?”, “Am I my disability?” and “When did I end and when did my disability begin?” “Who am I?” Prager said he asked himself.

These and many of Prager’s other questions struck a chord for me as I often ask my patients to reflect on these questions, that I will also pose to you:

– Who are you?

– What defines you?

– Are you the person who is defined by what other people see? By your diagnosis? By your family genes or by the money you have in your bank account?

– Think about it.

– Are you the banker, lawyer, person with cancer, sick, not good enough, the pretty one, the Jew?

– Who are you?

How you perceive yourself influences more than you realize. It determines how you experience your life and more so, how you handle uncertainty and adversity. If you perceive yourself as “broken,” sick or as a victim, you are less likely to handle adversity and trauma effectively or adaptively. You are more likely to succumb to negative emotional, psychological and physical complaints and thoughts. You are also less likely to be accountable and be able to bounce back after life does throw you a curve ball.

Take Prager, for instance, who was initially left a paraplegic. He first had to relearn how to breathe, then stand, and then four years later, he was able to walk. By then only his left side was paralyzed. Despite his disability, Prager travelled the world and became a journalist and author who typed with one finger. Despite his disability, he kept moving forward, learning, growing, asking, forgiving. This is not to say that Prager did not often feel victimized or angry at the unfairness that life had dealt him. What happened to Prager was not “good” or “meant to be.” It simply happened and it sucked. But rather than fall victim to his misfortune, he kept moving anyway and to use his situation as an opportunity for growth and meaning.

In contrast, Abed saw himself as the real victim of the accident. He did not look deep into himself, at least not according to what Prager saw. Rather, he created a story for himself that likely enabled him to keep living with his life. To Abed, the accident was God’s way of punishing him for his bad ways and now that he was a religious man, all was forgiven in his mind. Yet even though he was now more “holy,” Abed still felt victimized, believing the accident had ruined his life and that he would never rise above his misfortune. In his mind, Abed was the one who truly suffered. Do you think the notion of having to apologize even entered his consciousness?

Can you apologize when you feel that you are the one that is hurt? Can you be compassionate or see the big picture when it is you that has been violated?

You can’t, can you? In a victimized state, your stress response is activated. Your mind perceives this state of threat as being chased by a lion. There is no room for love, compassion or forgiveness. There is no room for higher thought or reasoning, as the lens of perception becomes smaller and smaller. You become limited in your ability to reason, truly make meaning and discover the blessings in disguise.

Who are you? Are you a victim or a victor. Are you stuck in the story of post-traumatic stress or are you moving forward with the story of post-traumatic growth?

As Prager wants you to realize, who you are is a culmination of your life experiences combined with your inherited genetic patterns along with how you have chosen to react and respond to what life has given you. You are not your diagnosis, your job or your socioeconomic status. You are not the trauma or the disability. You are, at your core, everything that has brought you to where you are today, perhaps a bit injured, but whole nonetheless. You are the person who cries and the person who laughs. You are neither good nor bad. You are human, strong, yet vulnerable, living in a world that can be hard and trying, yet also joyful and loving.

In the end, how you choose to see yourself and your world is up to you. Personally, I would like to choose to keep moving anyway.