Why Ultimate Freedom Lies in the Power of Choice
Here's what we can learn about resilience from Neil Armstrong's near-death experience.
On May 6, 1968, astronaut Neil Armstrong took off on a simulated lunar landing mission in Houston. It was a routine test flight — his 22nd at this point in time.
In the first five minutes of the flight, a thruster stuck and Armstrong suddenly lost control of the vehicle. About 200 feet above ground, he chose to eject himself from the aircraft. The vehicle crashed and burned while Armstrong parachuted safely to Earth.
The default response for most humans would be to react emotionally after an event like this. You better believe that if I had to self-eject from an aircraft, I would re-live every single second of it, make a big deal about it, call everyone I know, and likely develop a debilitating fear of flying. At the very least, I'd tell my astronaut buddies about how I just nearly died.
Armstrong did none of those things. After the crash, fellow astronaut Alan Bean saw Armstrong, still in his flight suit, filling out paperwork. They made small talk, and Armstrong went about his business. After this encounter, someone informed Bean about what had just happened. Bean couldn't believe Armstrong hadn't even mentioned it.
He walked to Armstrong's office, asked if he had just crashed the lunar lander, and Armstrong simply said: "I did." When Bean asked him to explain, Armstrong casually said: "I lost control and had to bail out of the darn thing." That was the end of the conversation.
When interviewed about this incident, Bean said that if any other astronaut had survived a crash landing like this, he would've joked about his piloting skills and entertained his peers with every detail.
Here's what Bean said about Armstrong's response:
"I don't think it was that Neil was so extraordinarily cooler than the other guys. But offhand, I can't think of another person, let alone another astronaut, who would have just gone back to his office after ejecting a fraction of a second before getting killed.
"He never got up at an all-pilots meeting and told us anything about it. That was an incident that colored my opinion about Neil ever since. He was so different than other people."
The big difference between Armstrong and most people is that he didn't internalize this event as a traumatic, near-death experience. Why? Because Armstrong lived in chaos. In training, he went to the extremes every day. As a result, he developed a greater threshold for discomfort than most of his peers.
Sometimes, we subject ourselves to hardship voluntarily, and sometimes, life throws us into a vortex of suffering without our consent.
There's a phenomenon psychologists call "the psychological immune system," which refers to the cognitive mechanisms that protect us from experiencing extreme negative emotions.
When it comes to imagining the emotional impact that future events will have on us, humans are pretty poor predictors. Studies show that in forecasting our responses from mildly uncomfortable to greatly traumatic, people typically misjudge how good or bad they will feel — and for how long. In other words, we tend to underestimate our ability to weather ferocious emotional storms.
I've profiled a number of individuals who have survived — and thrived — in the face of tragedy.
When he was 21 years old, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with early-onset ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which would gradually paralyze every part of his body. Luckily, Hawking would defy the odds and live another 55 years since the day he was given a death sentence. He became a world-renowned physicist, wrote best-selling books, visited every continent, became a father, appeared on "The Simpsons," went up on a hot-air balloon, and took part in a zero-gravity flight.
Actor Keanu Reeves was only 3 years old when his father left the family, he struggled with academics because of his dyslexia, his younger sister was diagnosed with leukemia, his daughter was stillborn at eight months, and his ex-girlfriend died in a car accident. Despite everything he's been through, Reeves has taught us that tragedy can be used to create a beautiful life filled with joy and acts of kindness.
Edith Eva Eger was a 16-year-old who had a promising career in ballet when her family was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. She survived the impossible and went on to get married, have kids, move to the United States, and become a clinical psychologist.
From Eger, I learned about "choice therapy." Through her work as a psychologist, she helped people recover from severe trauma by showing them that ultimate freedom lies in the power to choose.
Suffering is universal, Eger says, "but victimhood is optional." We're all likely to be victimized in some way through the course of our lives. At some point, we will suffer some kind of affliction or abuse, caused by circumstances or people over which we have little to no control. "This is victimization," she says. "It comes from the outside. It's the neighborhood bully, the boss who rages, the spouse who hits, the lover who cheats, the discriminatory law, the accident that lands you in the hospital."
On the flip side, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. "We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization. We develop a victim's mind — a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailers when we choose the confines of the victim's mind.”
For every Armstrong, Hawking, Reeves, and Eger, there are hundreds of people who buckled under the weight of stressful life events. That's what's so puzzling and counterintuitive about the human condition: Nearly every experience is contextual.
Maria Konnikova writes: "Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected."
For some of us, this past year has been the cause of an immense amount of loss, suffering, and sadness. For others, it's been a time of re-prioritization, self-reflection, and a great deal of learning.
Take Armstrong's near-death experience as a metaphor for life: You have no control over whether your vehicle jams at the last second, but you have the choice to self-eject, move toward safety, and go forward with life in spite of past setbacks.
As Armstrong once said: "I believe that every human has a finite amount of heartbeats. I don't intend to waste any of mine."