Rise Above, Give Back: Learning From A Nobel Prize
--Trishna Shah
8 minute read
Apr 23, 2010


“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.


Posted by Trishna Shah on Apr 23, 2010

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