About forty years ago, I heard a great definition of mental health. It wasn’t scientific or packed with a lot of hifalutin words. It was more like an example, a visual.
Imagine yourself climbing up a mountain and think of that ascent as your progression through life. You’re mentally healthy. Up, up, up, you go, and then BAM, something happens. Your heart is broken. You’ve lost hope. Despair swirls all around you. You decide to sit down and have a good cry, a pity party of one.
But sooner or later, a mentally healthy person is going to get up, brush off her shoulders, and say something like, “That was awful, but I’d be crazy to let it continue to get me down. I am so moving on!”
Someone who isn’t as mentally healthy is more likely to lie down and really wallow in it. “Poor me,” she says. “No one has ever had it as bad as I do. No one has ever hurt like this.”
This long ago visual of mental health has resurfaced in my mind because of a recent book I read and a movie I saw. The book is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things, and the movie is Unbroken, an incredible story of survival, perseverance, strength, and resilience. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the amazing life story of Louis Zamperini, a man who went from juvenile delinquent to Olympic track star to Japanese POW in World War II.
Regardless of what befell Louie, he remained unbroken. The same is true for Alma Whitaker, the protagonist in The Signature of All Things. Though wealthy and intelligent, Alma was unattractive and ungainly. Her own father even said so. The man of her dreams married another, and years later when she met someone else, Ambrose Pike, their marriage was brief and tortuous. After realizing some cold hard facts, Alma banished Ambrose to Tahiti in anger and deep hurt.
Later, Ambrose died there, and Alma literally gave everything away to her adopted sister Prudence and fled to Tahiti. After getting closure to some mysteries about her late husband, Alma decided to leave the tropics. Before her departure, however, a weird (to me) game took place in the sea, and one of the women attempted to drown her.
“Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature—the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation—and it was the explanation for the entire world.”
Alma gained strength and pushed through to the surface of the water.
I’m not as tough as Louie or Alma, but their stories have impressed and inspired me so much that I’ve been sharing their lessons with anyone who will listen. My children have probably heard more about these two characters than anyone else has, mainly because they’re too polite to say, “Okay, Mom, we get it.”
Here’s the gist of what these books (I read Unbroken before seeing the movie) said to me and I to others:
- “Life is tough sometimes. People leave your life; sometimes they die. You must remain unbroken.”
- “You might lose your job, the love of your life, your home. You must remain unbroken.”
- “You will experience rejection, loss, loneliness, disappointment, and good old despair. You must remain unbroken.”
- “Regardless of what befalls you, get up, brush yourself off, and start climbing again.”
I may have gone a little overboard with this post. Sorry, but these two people, one fictional and one real, have strengthened and inspired me. Who are some recent characters in movies or books who have influenced you?