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Survivor. The term refers to a person who outlives another person or any time, event, or thing. When I was a young man, I recall people using the term to describe a person who made it through an automobile wreck or some sort of accident or World War II or the holocaust or a tornado or hurricane or an earthquake. As we have made our way into the twenty-first century, survivor has taken on an entirely different flavor. I think its beginning to get out-of-hand.

 In medical school, I began hearing hospital administrators and politicians speak out about cancer survivors. These were patients who had cancer, any cancer, who recovered after treatment. Some patients received a simple one-time infusion to put their cancer into remission, while others may have undergone a complex, radical, life-saving surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation. In that scenario, I believe the term survivor should refer to surviving the therapeutic adventure more than the cancer itself. Later we had the emergence of the heart attack survivor and those patients who survived connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Premature infants were survivors as well as mothers who delivered those babies. There are survivors of obesity, hip fractures, malpractice, and infectious diseases such as AIDS. The healthcare field is filled with all kinds of survivors since there are hundreds of different diseases.

In the political theater, survivorship is awarded to anyone who has endured stress or transgression. There are those brave men and women who survive military service, especially those who fought in war. There are firefighters and officers of the law who survive all kinds of emotional and physical trauma while helping other survive through a difficult situation. There are spouses who survive the death of their loved ones who served in the military and died while in battle as well as public servants who lost their lives while protecting the peace. There are survivors of public and political scandal and ridicule as well as those who have survived financial ruin in stock market crashes or Ponzi schemes. Many of our citizens have survived racism in one form or another as well as discrimination. Bigotry is alive and well in America and it seems to be increasing in some regions of our country.

There are different survivor groups for different violations of personal boundaries. Victims of sexual assault have long been recognized as sexual assault survivors. Over the years, the concept of sexual assault has morphed from the crime of rape to inappropriate sexual comments made to an unsuspecting someone who finds the comments repulsive and degrading. A recent survey of young adult men found that twenty-five percent felt it was sexual harassment if they asked a woman out for a drink. It is getting confusing, to say the least. Is a woman who is asked out for a date sexually harassed? Is she a survivor of something? At the same time, we have a younger generation using the Tinder application to connect with someone to have spontaneous sexual interaction. We may have Tinder survivors soon.

Recently, I heard a sports reporter state that a well-known NFL football player was a survivor of the game. There is no question that many sports which have head injuries associated with them (soccer, hockey, MMA, boxing, rugby, etc.) have been under siege by many medical professionals who wish to ban them for the greater good of public health. I suspect we will have to ban bicycle riding, skateboarding, and construction work because of the risk of closed head injury. Will anyone who successfully competes in these sports or work situations be referred to as a survivor?

The first reason to identify a survivor group is to promote awareness. Being aware of the dangers of personal harm related to complex interactions between man and nature or man and man has almost never deterred man or woman from entering risky situations. People build houses on river banks and fault lines; people ignore the downsides of financial investments; people smoke cigarettes and take recreational drugs; people walk down dark alleyways and abandoned railroad tracks. Peril is everywhere in nature and civilization. Most survivors are surviving something man created or enacted. The message is loud and clear: Life is risky.

Another reason to identify a survivor group is to create a connectedness between those who have experienced similar life events, even though they may not share the exact same feelings about the event. Survivors seem to see themselves as a part of a bother or sisterhood. Many times, these organizations can generate large amounts of capital to be used for political persuasion, research, and development or funding for survivor needs.

There are two major problems with looking for survivor assignments. One is that we are becoming a nation of survivors. The corollary of this phenomenon is that we are also becoming a nation of perpetrators. Over the past thirty years, I have witnessed the consistent hyper-medicalization of our social problems so that well-meaning physicians can introduce medications and treatments to fix our social woes. At the same time, social media has exploded in all directions, giving people a chance to voice their worldviews and find others who share their thoughts as well as attack those who believe differently. Some perpetrators of crime, bullying, and racism claim that they are survivors too, somehow justifying maladjusted behaviors of all kinds. A pedophile cannot justify his or her behavior by citing their own abuse as a child. But public health officials and attorneys for the defense find any excuse possible to help a judge or jury believe that the perpetrator is a victim also, possibly mitigating his or her sentence. If we are all victims of something, we may also all be perpetrators of something else.

The second issue with assigning survivorship is that people are becoming on the prowl for new victims of any kind. I saw a high school student wearing a tee shirt that said: I survived Ms. Bartoli’s Class. I wondered who Ms. Bartoli was. I also pondered what she did to create a survivor of her class. Did Ms. Bartoli know that there was a tee shirt suggesting that she may be an education tyrant? Are we going to see more survivors of situations that merely require self-discipline, perseverance, and commitment? Is our society going to continue to encourage reporters and journalists to sensationalize the emotional rollercoasters of people not measuring up to societal or educational expectations? I left UT’s College of Medicine because I was not allowed to write test questions for medical students that provoked thinking and decision making. If half the class got a question wrong that I submitted after lecturing them, the question was removed from the test, and the tests were re-graded. Professors were afraid of requiring students to challenge themselves because the students complained to the Dean that the professors were too hard on them. The students saw themselves as being victims of a difficult teacher. They too survived their class instead of thriving in their class. It was always someone else’s fault for their failures.

If I look at my life from a survivor’s position, I am a survivor of physical and emotional child abuse, foster care, a dysfunctional family, discrimination in my church and high school, bullying, college football, medical school and residency, job discrimination, spousal abuse, infidelity, a divorce, a death of a spouse, parent dissatisfaction while coaching baseball, coronary artery disease, and financial fraud to name a few. I chose to look at my life as living its fullest and learning from my experiences. Let’s stop making every disturbance that we get through a survivorship of some kind.  

The world would be a better place.


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