How do we overcome trauma and transcend it?

The Phoenix has endured as a symbol of rebirth across many ancient cultures

My first childhood memories are from a UN refugee camp in Chile. My dad was one of the tens ( by some accounts hundreds) of thousands arrested by dictator Augusto Pinochet after a violent military coup in September 1973. After my father’s release we took shelter under the protection of the UN in what was a Catholic center called Padre Hurtado. In a state of fearful limbo, we spent our time with hundreds of other refugees asking for political asylum any country that would take us. Mortal danger was a grim reality for all of us. We had to find a new place to build a life and go into exile without any hope of return.

Soldiers in Santiago, Chile during the 1973 Military Coup

To make a long story short, our family ended up living in four countries on three continents by the time I turned seven. It was and still is at times painful. And yet forged in this furnace of suffering was something special. Certain capabilities that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

I learned four languages by age nine, forced to assimilate in vastly different cultures, curiosity and connecting with people became central to survival. An immigrant and minority my whole life, I was fortunate to receive an excellent education, sold millions of albums as an entertainer, started three profitable businesses, held top executive roles in several organizations, have been happily married to Deb for over two decades and have wonderful children. How does that happen after so much trauma, in spite the many obstacles, injustices including a military coup in Chile, civil war in Mozambique and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I believe the secret lies in flipping the script from victim to victor. Easier said than done, one may say, but some patterns can be recognized if we pay attention to people around us, who have managed to do just that.

First, I’ll mention one of my favorite personalities in history as an illustration.

Abram Petrovich Gannibal

Abram Petrovich Gannibal was born in 1698 in Central Africa, either in Cameroon or Chad and kidnapped as a boy and taken as a slave. Through a series of events the boy is presented as a gift to Russian Tsar Peter the Great. He was eventually freed by the Tsar, adopted as his godson and brought up in the Russian Imperial court. Abram became a military engineer, brilliant general, mathematician and philosopher. He became the first black intellectual in Europe, corresponded with Voltaire who famously called him the “dark star of the Enlightenment.” He had 11 children, died a wealthy and respected man and his great grandson Alexander Pushkin is considered by many the greatest poet in Russian history.

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin

Beyond many examples in history, I have several close friends who similarly seem to have flipped the script of horrific early life trauma into meteoric success in various fields.

So what are some of the observable patterns in people who seem to rise like the mythological Phoenix bird out of the flames?

They find the courage to deal with their demons head on, maintaining a keen sense of self-awareness for life.

They decide to make their weaknesses their greatest strength through intentional and rigorous effort.

They transform the unique insights, experiences and other bi-products of suffering into their super-power.

They develop grit and are not intimidated or deterred by life’s obstacles.

They turn circumstances where very little is guaranteed into a belief that anything is possible.

They think and feel deeply so they communicate with distinct conviction.

They develop a sense of profound gratitude and celebrate their blessings.

They invest in people, learn from people and value people.

They sincerely believe in a very different script of life than what one may assume based on their humble beginnings. In other words, they just don’t see themselves as victims.

These are some of the patterns I see through observation and inquisitive conversation.

May these help the reader flip the scripts that stem from suffering and injustice into stories of opportunity and overcoming.

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