Rise Above, Give Back: Learning From A Nobel Prize

Posted by Trishna Shah on Apr 23, 2010
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“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity.” – John F. Kennedy

While volcanic ash clouds from an eruption in Iceland threatened airplane engines and grounded all flights in northern Europe for a few days this past week, it offered us the unique opportunity to host a Circle of Sharing in London to learn from the personal service journey of a Nobel-prize-winning and just-plain-inspiring person visiting from Washington DC, Jerry White.   His life's work—transforming victims into survivors—is fueled by the conviction that, with the right tools, everyone can rise above tragedy and give back to their communities.

 
As Jerry opened the Circle of Sharing, he told us he’d never sat in silence for an hour with a group of people before and was grateful for this gathering.   He then shared the story of what brought him to the UK for the very first time back in the mid 90's – an invitation to have tea at Kensington Palace with Princess Diana, who had taken an interest in his work to transform victims of war into thriving survivors and contributors to their communities.  Probably not the typical excuse most of us would have for visiting the UK :) so we were all intrigued to hear more about how his incredible journey unfolded.

On April 12th, 1984 Jerry had a date with disaster.  As he recalls,

“I was twenty years old. I had taken time from my university studies in the United States to explore the Middle East. I wasn't a soldier. I was armed with only a backpack and an Arabic and Hebrew dictionary. Two friends and I had decided to explore northern Israel on a hiking trip. We were looking for a place to camp and had no idea that we had entered a minefield. There was no fence and no sign to keep us out. The next morning, on a beautiful spring day, I stepped on a mine. I can still remember the deafening blast and the smell of blood, burnt flesh and metal. Only when my friends rolled me over did they see the extent of my wounds. The explosion had ripped off my right foot, shrapnel had lacerated my skin, and my left leg was open and raw--with a bone sticking out of my calf. We screamed for help but it seemed that no one but God could hear. Either I would bleed to death, or my friends would have to carry me out of the minefield. Luckily we made it out without further loss.”

While a life experience like this can lead many into a bottomless pit of addiction to their victim status of feeling self-pity, blaming others and unable to move on from the past, for Jerry, it was the starting point for his personal journey to serve others and support them in making the transition from victimhood, to survivorship to servanthood.  Following his accident, Jerry spent 6 months at a hospital in Israel, undergoing 5 surgeries and subsequently countless hours of physical therapy.  The experience taught him about resilience and coping and formed the foundation of his future work, which began 10 years later.

“Trauma makes you more yourself, not less,” Jerry shared in describing his inspiration for embarking on the service journey which led him and his organisation to receive many accolades and awards, including the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.  This “accident” enabled Jerry to tap into something deep within his own heart and awaken his intention to serve others, to give back.  In 1996, while on a trip to Cambodia and walking along the streets of Phnom Pehn, a little girl, also an amputee, hopped up to Jerry, touched his prosthetic leg, and said (in Khmer), “You are one of us.”  This one moment, this one connection, helped Jerry to acknowledge his gifts and ignited his passion for sharing these gifts with others in the spirit of supporting their journeys.  He began to build a network of survivors to enable peer-to-peer support to help strengthen each other’s journeys to recovery.

Over the last 15 years, Jerry, together with fellow landmine survivor Ken Rutherford, co-founded Survivor Corps (formerly Landmine Survivors Network), the first international organization created by and for survivors to help victims of war rebuild their lives.  He also played an integral role in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, leading 122 governments around the world to sign the Ottawa Treaty in 1997, which formed an international law to “put an end to the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel landmines.”  To share his message and experiential knowledge, Jerry has written a book, “Getting Up When Life Knocks You Down: Five Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis”, to offer guidance on what you will need to do to recover and thrive after your date with disaster.  Everyone, at some point in their lives, will have a date with disaster, so Jerry has gathered wisdom from survivors from around the world along with history, literature and scriptures, to share these five steps toward fulfillment:

  • Face Facts: One must first accept the harsh reality about suffering and loss, however brutal.  In Jerry’s case he had to accept that he wasn’t a starfish – his leg wasn’t growing back, ever – and neither was his hair as he grew bald :)
  • Choose Life: It’s a daily decision. Seizing life, not surrendering to death or stagnation, requires letting go of resentments and looking forward, not back.  Margaret, a survivor Jerry met in Uganda, faked death to evade her attackers after the vehicle she was in exploded.  What moved her to do this?  She said she made a choice in her mind to live for the sake of her 5 kids.
  • Reach Out: No one survives alone, reach out to others.  While Jerry was in the hospital for 6 months in Israel, another survivor in the hospital, who had also lost his leg, befriended Jerry.  The first time they met, he walked across the room and asked Jerry to tell him which leg he lost.  He couldn't.  And this small intervention helped Jerry to realize the problem wasn’t his missing leg, it was in his mind.  Role models who have been in tough situations can share invaluable gifts of empathy with others who are now going through something similar.
  • Get Moving: As Jerry said, quite bluntly, "Nobody does it for you.  The universe offers us moments in life when we have to do it ourselves, nobody else can do it for us.  Traumas are like scar tissues that wake us up.”  The first time Jerry was put in a wheelchair during his hospital stay, he said he was in the victim state of mind and just sat there.  The nurse looked down at him and laughed, “If you want to move, push.”  And so he did.
  • Give Back: As Jerry so eloquently says in his book, “Thriving, not just surviving, requires the capacity to give again, through service and acts of kindness.  […]  Until we reach a point where we can be grateful for our life experience, we are at risk of backsliding into victimhood.  We won’t cross the finish line until we rediscover gratitude and learn to give again.  Only then will we thrive.”  And in his own day-to-day experience, when asked if he ever slips back into victimhood, Jerry said this only happens when he's not giving selflessly.


From the late Diana, Princess of Wales to Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Lance Armstrong, Jerry’s organization and the international campaign has received support, praise and partnerships at the highest levels.  Jerry shared  personal stories of time he spent with Princess Diana, who was a passionate supporter of their work, and who he escorted on what would become her last humanitarian mission to Bosnia before she passed away.  “Diana had a way of knowing who the loneliest person in the room was.  She could tell where the pain was.  She would seek out these people, connect with each survivor, draw out their suffering and take some of their suffering out of the room with her.  When Diana took pain away, it was like a healing transaction.”  And what is the secret behind this gift, according to Jerry:  Love.  That’s right, “L-U-V” : listening, understanding and validating -- that's the key to sharing genuine empathy with survivors.

A few years ago, Jerry felt he was tiring out from his cycle of “serial achievement”, of living on a non-stop treadmill to achieving the next thing on his list.  A friend and Board Member sensed he was burning out and asked Jerry, “Do you have a spiritual practice?”  After avoiding the question, she dug deeper and together they discovered that something was missing.  She encouraged him to start with observing his breath for 1 minute each day for the first month, increasing to 2 minutes each day in the second month and so forth.  While he confessed he found it hard to get through one minute initially, once he continued the practice it enabled him to let go of his attachment to serial achievement.  Jerry realized, “Awards, accolades, etc.  None of it is satisfactory unless you’re breathing.  And, once you’re aware of this, it doesn’t even matter if you’re achieving or not.”

“You’re more than your body,” Jerry shared in explaining how having a spiritual practice has enabled him to overcome his fears and reclaim his inner joy.  Last year, for the first time in his life, Jerry went back to visit the exact place in Israel where he met his date with disaster on April 12th, 1984.  He wasn’t sure exactly how he might react when he first got there or how he would feel about being in that place.  When he arrived and was present, in that exact spot at the top of the hill near the cluster of trees he remembered so vividly, he realized he had forgotten how happy he was before the explosion.  He lost more than a leg in the mine field.  But that day, when he returned, he was filled with a sense of joy and release.  “It felt good to go back and reclaim that joy.”

 We are so grateful to Jerry for sharing his personal journey with us and blessed that the volcano created such a memorable and inspiring opportunity to learn.

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Comments (10)

  • Nipun wrote ...

    Trishna, what an incredible story!  And great write-up too.  I'm still chewing on all the wonderful nuggest that you've packed in this entry ...

    • The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.
    • Trauma makes you more yourself, not less.
    • No one survives alone.  Reach out to others.
    • Secret to healing is love.  That's LUV: listening, understanding, and validating.
    • No one but God could hear.
    • We won’t cross the finish line until we rediscover gratitude and learn to give again.
    • None of the awards and accolades are satisfactory unless you’re breathing.  And, once you’re aware of this, it doesn’t even matter if you’re achieving or not.
    • Reclaim the joy!

    Thanks for Friday morning smiles. :)

  • Mehwaesh wrote ...

    Thanks for the article Trishna! Jerry was truly inspirational. I went away with an immense sense of gratitude for all that I have in life and also with an urge to reach out to others through service. As the saying goes, 'To whom much is given, much is required'...we have all been given the gift of life :)

  • Guri wrote ...

    Thanks for the beautiful write-up, I feel like I was actually there. So many wonderful lessons and what an honor to spend the evening together in this way with Jerry. What an inspiration he is.

  • Aditi wrote ...

    Trishna - this is an awesome write up which captures how inspiring that evening was.  Thanks so much to you and Deep for hosting it and of course to Jerry for taking the time to share his experiences with us.  It was incredibly inspiring and moving to meet somehow who has overcome so much and moved to a space of selfless service.

  • Sachi Maniar wrote ...

     Trishnaaa! Thank you soo much for sharing this story and inspiring us :) Igreat lessons :) 

    thanks a ton :)

  • prakash wrote ...

    Thank you Trishna. What an incredible  Journey!. Great write-up. Wish Jerry and the lives that are touched a joyful life no matter where they are in the journey of life.

    In deep appreciation and connecting at joy-level :-),

    Prakash

  • Richard wrote ...

     Trishna, thank you for helping to spread the gift this man conveys in his life and actions. 

  • Nitika wrote ...

    (This is a little longer than a 'comment', but Trishna encouraged us to share- so here goes...!) Thank you Trishna, for creating the opportunity for such an inspiring evening, hosting us with such warmth, and the write up. Meeting Jerry was especially significant, because I felt like it was a missing piece in the wider jigsaw of my experiences since arriving in Ahmedabad last October.  I was volunteering with a project called Nyayagrah, a community based movement for justice in the aftermath of the 2002 riots. My work involved asking about the experiences and personal journeys of ‘justice-workers’ who were running the project at the grassroots, through sharing long conversations with them,  over 4 days each! At the same time, I was livi [...] See full comment.

    (This is a little longer than a 'comment', but Trishna encouraged us to share- so here goes...!)

    Thank you Trishna, for creating the opportunity for such an inspiring evening, hosting us with such warmth, and the write up. Meeting Jerry was especially significant, because I felt like it was a missing piece in the wider jigsaw of my experiences since arriving in Ahmedabad last October. 

    I was volunteering with a project called Nyayagrah, a community based movement for justice in the aftermath of the 2002 riots. My work involved asking about the experiences and personal journeys of ‘justice-workers’ who were running the project at the grassroots, through sharing long conversations with them,  over 4 days each! At the same time, I was living and volunteering part time with Manav Sadna (MS). The learnings at MS of spiritual grounding, faith in process over outcome, and an individual’s power to create change through small acts of kindness, were so timely; providing support just as I needed it in Nyayagrah. Applying principles embodied at MS of ‘connecting with people from the heart’ and ‘serving with compassion’ helped me create a deeper rapport with the ‘justice-workers’ which was crucial to the success of my work.

    I left India feeling empowered by my new-found conviction in the power to create change at an individual level through compassionate personal interactions. However, coming back to England reminded me of university lectures in development economics, DFID’s office at Whitehall, and I was struggling to reconcile them with my experience in India. Models of development and excel spreadsheets of funding to various NGOs seemed like another world from the organic growth of MS, even its antithesis when comparing the nature of personal interactions in them. Could they really both be parts of the same overall goal of preventing conflict and bettering people’s daily welfare?  

    Jerry was a living example that one can be a bridge between these worlds, so they aren’t really separate at all. As an individual, he embodies key values I saw being practiced at MS. Our meeting started off with a spiritual practice. He addressed us as a group, and personally, with a genuine warmth and familiarity. A core part of his way of creating change is through peer support, which is essentially transformation at an individual level through compassionate interactions. In addition though, he has been working at the macro scale; dealing with funding agencies, running an international NGO, and spearheading an international treaty. In retrospect, it seems a little obvious that all these different organisations and modes of tackling post conflict reconciliation have the same overall mission but are working at different levels, along a spectrum of the individual to the macro. However, it is rare to meet someone whose life and work as spanned that spectrum while maintaining an ability to sincerely connect with other individuals. Thank you, Jerry for the inspiring in others the possibility of being a connecting link between the levels of this spectrum, and embodying the overlap between the spiritual, individual, and macro.

     

    Hide full comment.

  • Paras wrote ...

    Trishnam, thanks for this write-up! I wish I could have been there in person to hear Jerry. But you've managed to convey a lot of inspiration through this article! Thanks!

  • sheetal wrote ...

    such in depth sharing... feels like i was right there listening to jerry speak... thanks for writing this out for all of us...
    in gratitude,
    sheetal