A couple of years ago, Eddie Jaku — who became known at the end of his life for his memoir The Happiest Man on Earth — died in Sydney at the age of 101. While reading the book by this German-Jewish engineer, who was arrested by the Nazis in 1938 and interned in various concentration camps, happiness is made conspicuous by its absence. However, his narration serves to illustrate the decision he made that miraculously saved his life. After managing to escape from the concentration camp in the last days of the war, he survived in a cave, living on snails, slugs, and dirty water.
With the last of his strength — having contracted cholera and typhoid fever — he crawled to the road. American soldiers found him. He weighed only 62 pounds and had a low chance of survival. In that uncertain state, he made a decision: “I promised myself: if I get out of this, I will be the happiest man in the world. I will be helpful, I will be kind.”
We don’t know if the pact that he made with himself helped Eddie heal, but in the life he would lead in Australia, he did his best to be friendly and helpful to everyone. He continuously received awards and recognitions up until he passed away.
In 2019, he stated that he didn’t hate anyone, despite having lost a large part of his family and friends in the Holocaust. He preferred to invest his energy into doing everything possible to help his community. Is his an extraordinary case? Or can you really be happy after having experienced extreme adversity?
In one of his most memorable phrases, Nietzsche stated: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Several contemporary authors support this vision. In his book Out of the Darkness, psychologist Steve Taylor analyzes the cases of 30 people who were awakened to life by intense trauma. One of the most shocking is that of the Australian citizen Gill Hicks, a workaholic architect who was a victim of the attacks on the London subway in 2005. She was the last person to be pulled alive from the wreckage of the train. As a result of her injuries, both her legs had to be amputated. As she began her “second life” — in her own words — she began to value each day, hour and minute in a totally new way. Perhaps because she had been on the verge of dying, she was finally able to enjoy “every drink of water, every drop of tea or coffee, savoring every bite of food and enjoying every glass of wine.”
In another testimony collected by Taylor, a suicidal man who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco became aware, as he fell, that he wanted to continue living. After learning (in the rescue boat) that he belonged to the scarce 2% of people who survive the jump, he discovered that the depression that had relentlessly stalked him had disappeared. Suddenly, he felt enormous gratitude towards life, which was giving him a new chance.
His transformation fits with the study that psychologist David Rosen carried out in 1975 with the 10 people who, at that time, had managed to survive the fall from the Golden Gate Bridge. All of them claimed to have experienced a spiritual awakening during or just after the jump.
These are extreme examples of resilience, a process that neurologist Boris Cyrulnik describes in this way: “A trauma has upset the injured person and taken them in a direction they would [have liked to avoid]. However, given that he has fallen into a current that drags him and takes him towards a cascade of bruises, the resilient person must call on his internal resources… he must fight to not let himself be carried away by the natural slope of the traumas.”
Perhaps this is the secret: when you surpass the last boundaries of despair, you discover, on the other side, a strength and vitality that was anesthetized by the noise of negative thoughts.
The lesson we can draw from these testimonies is that we should be able to appreciate life without needing to be on the verge of losing it. Even if we feel like we’re going through a tunnel, it will help us to know that there’s light on the other side.
As Albert Camus once wrote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
An unexpected enthusiasm for life
One of the most unique stories about adversity was the one published in 2012 by Olivier Bouyssi. After suffering a serious accident in 1988, a transfusion of HIV-infected blood caused him to suffer from several cancers.
In his book, he details the frequent visits to hospitals, as well as the disastrous diagnoses he received. Perhaps all of this drove him to live with ferocious joy and enthusiasm. A quarter-of-a-century after his illness, he wrote a memoir delving into this idea, titled Happy Against All Odds. And, at the time of the publication of this piece, against every prognosis, he’s still happy in this life.
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