5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin

This article was originally published at Authority Magazine.

Anger is never a sustainable path to success. Yet, it may be the right fuel you need for that initial thrust to blast you through the gravity of negative resistance. My anger and aggression — my battle to prove my father wrong — brought me to a place where I could finally say, “I’m okay. I’m not now and never was the failure he believed I was.” At the time, just the right extrinsic motivation I needed to break free. However, for a lifetime of success, we need a deeper desire — a compelling why — that expresses our unique sense of purpose and truth. Anger might ignite the engine. It can’t keep it running.

The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.

Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.

How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?

In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Michael Tobin.

Dr. Tobin has been a US Army officer, entrepreneur, psychologist, and author since 1969. He met his life partner and soulmate, Deborah, on a dance floor in 1974. In November 2018, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She slowly slips into a world of silence.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Our theme is grief and loss. So, I’ll begin with how I learned that nothing lasts forever:

First recollection: On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. We, the Americans, not the Soviets, were supposed to be first into space. I was eleven at the time and I believed in the prevailing narrative that we were morally, technologically, and politically superior to the Communists.

It was a day of mourning and trauma for America. Our rabbi called a special prayer assembly to pray for the rapid recovery from our collective shame. America lost a race that it was impossible for it to lose. Congregants cried, wailed, and trembled on that infamous day when Certainty died. To this boy, the world would never quite be the same. How could it be? It’s terrifying to lose certitude. Unless, of course, you find a more enduring truth than a myth propagated by a government.

Second recollection: In 1958, my beloved New York Giants and those bums from Brooklyn, the Dodgers, abandoned New York for the glitz and glitter of California. Willie Mays was my hero. I slept every night with his autographed baseball nestled inside the pocket of my glove engraved with the signatures of Johnny Antonelli, Wes Westrum, Alvin Dark, Monte Irvin and the rest of the 1954 World Champion New York Giants. From 1954, when I was eight until 1957, I lived and died with every glorious victory and with each agonizing loss. I and the Giants were one. Then they left. No goodbyes. No explanations. Gone. A gaping hole remained in the heart of a 12-year-old. The same painful lesson: There’s nothing to hold on to — all things change.

Third recollection: I grew up in a liberal, democratic stronghold on Long Island. The grownups supported civil rights, school integration, and Jackie Robinson in 1947. All good until their values were put to a real-world test. Around the time the Giants abandoned New York, a black couple wanted to move into our integrated white community of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. She had a Ph.D. in education, and he was a physician and professor at a local medical school — significantly more educated than the good white folks of this Levitt-built suburb with an exclusionary clause.

So how did those open-minded white liberals greet their new neighbors? With a petition demanding they move. Afterall, it was the law. Well, sort of. The residents did sign an agreement “not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” The Supreme Court threw out the agreement as unconstitutional. That didn’t deter the Liberals. They borrowed tricks from the Ku Klux Klan, whom they presumably despised. Bricks and arson drove the black family from our peaceful, Long Island suburb. An idealistic kid tends to choke on the bitter pill of adult hypocrisy. Another loss. For a child, it’s a confusing world without a moral compass.

Fourth recollection: My mother died when I was eighteen. She knew True North: She battled the liberal racists. When I was twelve, I came home from school and told her that the music teacher hit me “for no reason.” She called the teacher and all I could hear was, “Hmm, yes, I understand.” She approached me, slapped me across the face, and said, “You will never again insult a Holocaust survivor.” This was the one and only time she hit me. When she died, I lost my way. I didn’t know it at the time, but I expressed my grief with drugs, gambling, and partying. Ten years after her death, I sobbed. It was only then that I understood how much she meant to me. Today, she lives within me as a model of integrity, stability, and strength. Her motto has become mine: “Never whine. Change what you despise.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The personal life deeply led always expands into truths beyond itself. (Anais Nin)

I never wanted to play it safe — to live life in fear, obsessed by the need for security. As I wrote in my memoir, Riding the Edge, A Love Song to Deborah, Death doesn’t frighten me; it’s not living that scares the hell out of me. Like Dylan sang — ‘He not busy being born, is busy dying.’ I know about that. My father made a safe choice: He gave up the uncertainty of medical school for the security of selling tablecloths for his older brother, Lou. He hated himself for his cowardice, but raged against my sister and me, as if the two of us were at fault.

My strongest held religious conviction — if we can call it that — is that each of us is a unique expression of God’s will and it’s our holy mission to actualize and express the totality of who we are. We discover our truth when we live the life we’ve been granted with passion, gratitude, and humility. It’s how the impossible becomes possible.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

1.Anger. Yup. For years I hated my father. From my earliest recollection, he repeatedly told me that I was and will always be a failure. Not surprisingly, like most self-fulfilling prophecies, I helped to actualize his toxic failure messages to me. Our game of “You’re Worthless and I’ll Show You How” ended when he refused to pay for my college education. My response to him was, “F.U. I’ll show you.” I found a part-time job and paid for my last two years at NYU. When I told him that I was accepted to graduate school, he said, “You’ll never finish.” I finished first in my class and went on to complete a doctorate in psychology. “Thanks, Dad, you had a lot to do with my early successes.”

Anger is never a sustainable path to success. Yet, it may be the right fuel you need for that initial thrust to blast you through the gravity of negative resistance. My anger and aggression — my battle to prove my father wrong — brought me to a place where I could finally say, “I’m okay. I’m not now and never was the failure he believed I was.” At the time, just the right extrinsic motivation I needed to break free. However, for a lifetime of success, we need a deeper desire — a compelling why — that expresses our unique sense of purpose and truth. Anger might ignite the engine. It can’t keep it running.

2. Love. My love for Deborah and her love and belief in me were powerful motivators for success. I met Deborah in graduate school. She had $10,000 in the bank. I owed $10,000. She had a perfectly maintained, always-clean, bright-yellow Volkswagen convertible. My ancient Oldsmobile had four bald tires, a noisy muffler, and a pile of dirty clothes in the back seat. (Between apartments, I sometimes lived in my car.) She loved my brain, my humor, and my passion for living life fully. She taught me how to be responsible without losing the good stuff. I helped her to laugh at life’s absurdities and gave her permission to let the dishes stay in the sink until the next day.

For the next forty-five years, we brought the best out in each other. Now, it’s my time to give to her unconditionally. My life partner, the person who helped undo my father’s negative messages, that beautiful soul who brought so much light to so many people, is now drifting into the shadowy world of Alzheimer’s. My proudest success in life is knowing how to love her now — unconditionally.

3. Persistence. When I was in officer’s training for the US Army, the drill sergeant would scream, “If you can’t run, walk fast. If you can’t walk fast, walk slow. If you can’t walk slow, crawl on all fours. If you can’t crawl on all fours, crawl on your belly. Just move.” I move. I have for many years now. Toward a goal. Sometimes personal and sometimes professional. Like many successful people, I’ve had more goals and dreams than the time and resources to achieve them. Yet, I can say, “Where I’ve invested, I’ve accomplished.” Whether as a psychologist, a writer, entrepreneur, a master level athletic competitor, a husband, father, or grandfather, I have done what the sergeant demanded, I continued to move forward.

There is a time to let go. Yet, being able to persist, to struggle when necessary, to never give up are the basic ingredients of every successful person.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?

Yes, I feel comfortable to share. Actually, the feeling is much stronger than comfort. I feel an inner necessity to share. I believe that we have an obligation to learn from one another.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

In October 2018, Deborah and I reached the summit of the Everest Base Camp. On the way up, I could tell something was not right with her. She seemed disoriented, unable to communicate clearly, forgetful, and even somewhat childish in her responses. I attributed it to the altitude and her frequently dysregulated thyroid gland. A week after we returned home, we were sitting in a café with our four children when a friend we’ve known for over thirty years approached our table to say hello. Deborah looked bewildered. When the woman left, my oldest daughter asked Deborah, “Mom, do you know who that was?” Deborah replied, “No, should I?”

I prayed for a malfunctioning thyroid gland. What we got instead was this: a brain filled with a gooey white substance called beta amyloid plaque that gobbles up healthy neurons and synapses, an elevated Tau protein, and a shrunken hippocampus — definitive symptoms of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, an incurable, soul-destroying life sentence. I didn’t want to believe that the love of my life, the mother of our children, the grandmother to our seventeen grandchildren would fade away until even I might become unrecognizable to her.

How did you react in the short term?

In denial. I refused to believe that my brilliant wife, a woman who graduated from Wellesley, MIT, and the Sorbonne, who, at one time, spoke five languages fluently, had a doctorate in psychology, was a meditator, a yogi, a vegetarian, had no family history of Alzheimer’s, and didn’t even own the Alzheimer’s gene — that she, of all people, the smartest girl ever to graduate from Charleston High School (West Virginia), the woman with the GPS brain who could fix anything from a lamp to a television, that this woman — IMPOSSIBLE — could have THAT dreaded illness.

So, I made it go away with a Ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, a thousand vitamins and supplements, a cocktail of apple cider vinegar, turmeric, and lemon juice, and long walks.

The results were astonishing: She’d watch the same movies over and over again, never realizing that she had seen them dozens of times. The disease’s voracious appetite devoured all the grandchildren’s names, her five foreign languages, a significant number of English words, the names of most of her lifetime friends, a huge chunk of family history, and, most sadly of all, her extraordinarily high emotional intelligence. We watch her fade into herself.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?

Information, honesty, support, and love.

Information: It helps to be informed — to have no illusions about Alzheimer’s, to be able to differentiate the person from the illness, to be skillful in your interactions with an Alzheimer’s patient, to know when to push (almost never) and when to let go.

Honesty: To see the situation as it is, not as I wish it to be. Deborah’s mantra throughout her life has been and continues to be: “It is what it is.” So now that it is what it is, what do you do about it? What is the healthiest, most loving, and wisest course of action?

Support: My friends and family have been an extraordinary support system for me. I’m blessed with smart, loving children so I’m never alone in making decisions regarding Deborah’s care. We look after each other. For me, laughter is the best therapy. My friends and family understand that. Occasionally, we cry together.

Love: I’ll say more about that later. For now, I’ll say “Love does heal.” Alzheimer’s has taught me how to love well.

Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?

Elizabeth Kubler Ross, the extraordinary woman who taught us how we mourn in stages, theorized that the second stage of grief, after denial, is anger. I would become critical and angry at Deborah’s memory lapses, her increasing dysfunctionality, and her lengthy silences. When I write about it now, I’m ashamed of my insensitivity and selfishness. Unconsciously, I was raging against the wickedness of this inhumane illness.

The process of letting go didn’t happen in a solitary, shining moment. It occurred gradually over a period of months. I had to accept my powerlessness in the face of this illness, to let go of the false hope that someday soon we’ll find a cure and I’ll get my Deborah back.

Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?

I made a conscious decision to love Deborah — different from the feeling of loving a partner who reciprocates emotionally, intellectually, and physically. A healthy loving relationship is based on an implicit agreement that we give and receive from one another. With Alzheimer’s, the game changes. The relationship we had — the one I wrote about in Riding the Edge, A Love Song to Deborah — no longer exists.

I’ll share a brief vignette that illustrates the shift. I was sitting in our home office, deep in thought, feeling sad. Randy, our beloved golden retriever, had become a burden for Deborah. I had to give him away. At the moment of decision, Deborah walked in the room, stared at me, asked me what’s wrong, and then, before waiting for my response, exited the room. Within that one moment, Deborah, my soulmate, sensed my sadness, Alzheimer’s devoured her feeling, and the patient departed. I understood, then, that Alzheimer’s would continue to wipeout any vestiges of the woman I once knew.

I choose to love that woman, the woman ravaged by a disease that systematically dehumanizes her. Every day I love her in small ways: I tell her stories; I stroke her hand; I make her food; and, on occasion, I watch her favorite TV shows with her. I’m going to travel with her as long as it’s feasible to do so. And, as often as she asks, I read Riding the Edge, A Love Song to Deborah to her. She sometimes cries; she often laughs, and she always says, “We’ve had an amazing life together.”

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

Cheryl, Deborah’s dear friend, taught me how to love her: Cheryl sits next to Deborah and gently places her right arm around her shoulder. Her left-hand strokes Deborah’s hand. They’re listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving,” a haunting song of love and loss. I notice that Deborah’s eyes are moist. Cheryl leans over and kisses Deborah on the cheek. Deborah smiles. Cheryl looks at me. We both cry softly.

This is the way I now love Deborah — the way Cheryl taught me.

Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?

I hold it as a sacred belief that to live life with integrity, grace, and meaning we must learn to embrace the circumstances of life — whether they be joyous or painful, chosen or unasked. We all suffer. Some of us do it well and purposefully. Others rail against the unfairness with rage and helplessness. Better to learn from life than battle against it. It doesn’t mean we accept without a fight, or in the case of Deborah, stop searching for the next experimental drug or new treatment. But we do it as warriors engaged on the frontlines of uncertainty where we learn to choose what we didn’t ask for and accept what we don’t want.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?

Years ago, I saw a foreign film about a young couple deeply in love who venture on an isolated mountain trek. We see a happy, attractive couple sauntering, hand-in-hand on this scenic path. He’s on her right. Suddenly a man charges, knife in hand, from his right. In an instinctive act of survival, he grabs his lover’s shoulders and swings her so that she now stands between the attacker and himself. The attacker stops, laughs in disdain at his selfish act of self-preservation, and tosses the knife away. This is where the story begins.

I’ve always wondered how I would react when tested in uncertain circumstances. I know I can be fearless. I know in situations of danger that my system slows down, my thinking becomes cool and deliberate, and my actions follow some deeply encoded path of survival. But none of those warrior-like responses prepared me for Deborah’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

I was afraid I would resort to anger, to criticism, to bitterness. To be honest, I did experience those negative feelings, but my better angels surfaced. Her illness has taught me to love more deeply, to give more fully, to expect little, to be what she needs me to be: a loving and patient caretaker, a chronicler of an astonishing life together. From that first moment that I met Deborah on the dance floor in Keene, New Hampshire in June 1974 until today, she has never ceased to bring the best out of me.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.

My book Riding the Edge, among many other themes, chronicles our lifechanging, serendipitous encounters with the survivors of war and genocide, individuals who experienced multiple losses. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to each of them. They have given me the courage and inspiration to face life’s challenges with humility, determination, and hope.

From Le Clown, Simone, Jacob, my own personal experience, and Leah, I learned that to heal from a dramatic loss or life changing event you need imagination, grit or a warrior’s spirit, resiliency, gratitude, and faith.

1.Imagination, the ability to imagine what is needed in the face of tragic circumstance. Here’s Le Clown’s story:

For five years, from the day the Nazis invaded Belgium, we only knew suffering. My Jewish friends disappeared or were shot for sport. My heart was black with hatred. I lived to kill Germans. It gave me deep pleasure. Don’t let anyone tell you that revenge isn’t sweet. It’s more delicious than honey. I was good at it.

My nom de guerre was Le Saboteur. I was like an actor on the stage who becomes the character he plays. My part: revenge and death. To murder Germans, to blow up everything that had a swastika on it. We were mosquitoes to the Nazis: biting them, making them crazy with our buzzing, tasting Nazi blood in our mouths.

For Le Saboteur, the Germans had to die — no voice of conscience asking whether this was what God wanted. Le Saboteur knew what God wanted: Destroy evil, even if evil is an eighteen-year-old, scared German soldier who knows nothing. To Le Saboteur, the enemy was not human. Should you feel pity for vermin? No, you exterminate them.

But what I didn’t know is that killing, even killing Nazis, comes at a big price. With every life you take, you cut out a piece of your soul until what’s left is a machine that no longer feels love or joy.

That was me at the end of the war. Both my brothers were killed. My mother’s heart was broken; she died right after the war. When we suffer, we think, “Only I suffer,” but after the war who was not grieving? Who was not trying to find sense in madness?

Before the war, I was a magician and a part-time clown, performing at birthday parties. Post-war, the world was a sad place — no birthday parties, no circuses with bears and elephants, no clowns for forgetting your sorrows. We survivors forgot how to laugh. In 1945, when women dressed in black and children begged in the streets, joy and laughter went into hiding.

After the war, I had many frightful dreams — faces of dead Germans with terrified eyes, legs lying on the ground next to burnt bodies, children screaming. There were no psychiatrists to talk to about your nightmares; no groups where you could cry together and confess the horrible things you’d done during the war. I became my psychiatrist. I learned that my terrifying dreams were the voice of my soul waking me from five years of living hell, five years of being Le Saboteur, the right part in the theater of madness . . .

You’re both psychologists, so you know about imagination and the alter ego. To do what I did during the war, I had to create Le Saboteur. Le Saboteur was fearless. He had the heart, the mind, and the skills of a warrior. Le Saboteur acted his part as perfectly as Artur Rubinstein performs Chopin.

To create Le Saboteur, the Demand of Circumstance had to ignite the Power of Imagination. I never asked myself, “What should I do?” To Circumstance, I asked, “What is needed?” Imagination responded with the answer: The Alter Ego, Le Saboteur, a role the twenty-five-year-old Yves Draymond, a young man with gifted hands and a pirate’s spirit, learned to play with enthusiasm and talent.

One day — I don’t remember how many months after the war it was — I had that same feeling that Circumstance was demanding that I act, that I do what I must to make children laugh and smile again. So, I put on my clown costume, made my cheeks white, painted a funny smile on my face, and marched to the orphanage. The street kids started screaming in delight, and then as if God Himself willed it, they formed a single line and paraded behind me like I was the Pied Piper. I arrived at the orphanage with maybe twenty children, all dirty, in torn clothes, some without shoes, but all laughing and shouting, “Le Clown! Le Clown!”

On that day, I understood that Fate had brought me to the doorstep of the orphanage. Where Le Saboteur once lived, Le Clown would find his home.

Everything you can imagine is real. It’s how I live my life.

2. Grit — The determination to continue with life even after the most horrific trauma. Simone’s story:

Simone was born the same year as I, 1946, six months after Germany surrendered. Deborah’s innocent question, under the influence of wine, the safe company of two friends, and the absence of melancholy (which for some is a defense against trauma), triggers a reaction that none of us expect.

Simone bursts out crying. Her tears fall like torrents. Alain strokes her hand and then draws her closer to him. He knows her tears.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t expect this. I don’t want to ruin our evening.” Simone glances at Deborah.

“You won’t,” Deborah says, her voice warm and compassionate. “You’d turn over heaven and earth to be there for us. We can do the same for you.”

Simone swallows back sobs. Deep furrows line her pale cheeks, and pallid circles materialize under her watery blue eyes. Her eyes clamp tight; she retreats inside. I imagine her whirling downward into a blind cave where memories like crouching beasts hide within the crevices, ready to attack, about to overwhelm. I want to tell her, “Scream! Vomit! Do whatever you must to release this horror.” She remains silent, frozen in terror. Alain gently strokes her hair and says, “Let Deborah and Michael be there for you. It’s what you need.”

“Ghosts,” she whispers, her voice shaking. “My two brothers burned to death . . . from a British bomb that landed on my parents’ house. This was my childhood. Nightmares and ghosts.” I notice the color has drained from Deborah’s face. I suspect she’d say the same about me. Neither of us shocks easily, but I sense we’re about to enter a dimension of trauma far beyond our imagination and experience. Far beyond the healing power of words.

“At night, I’d lie in bed terrified, unable to shut out my father’s nightmares. Each one was a fragment of horror that over time told a story. When the bomb hit my parents’ home, Andre and Michel were playing in the basement. My father tried to save them, but fire separated him from his sons. They screamed until they became silent.

“He watched their flesh roast until the only thing that remained of my brothers was ash. Ash that he scooped up and preserved in a jar he kept in his office.” She stops, looks down momentarily, then says in a voice heavy with bitterness and grief, “My father saved Jews from the ovens. His reward: His sons turned to dust by British bombs. A burnt offering to the God of Nothingness.

“My father’s life ended with the death of my brothers. He never forgave himself for failing to rescue them. He raged against us like we had no right to live in the same world that took his sons.

“This was the world I was born into — a childhood burdened with suffering. If you smiled, you were disloyal to the memory of Andre and Michel. When the boys died, joy and happiness died with them. My sister and I felt guilty for being children. We didn’t cry. We didn’t play. We read books and tiptoed around my father.”

Simone found the warrior’s spirit within, that fierce will to go on and to refuse to let the evil that destroyed her brothers and her father destroy her as well. She went on to build a life of love, healing, and compassion. She trained to become a psychoanalyst.

3. Resiliency — the ability to survive under the most horrific conditions and to recreate a life after the tragic loss of his entire family. Jacob’s story:

“The Nazis, along with their Dutch collaborators, murdered 108,000 Dutch Jews — including two of my grandparents, both of my parents, my two brothers, and my sister. I am the one survivor from an extended family of fifty…”

He resumes his story: During 1941, the Germans and their Dutch collaborators tightened the noose around the Jewish community. Like the rest of European Jews, we were stripped of our rights and confined to a ghetto. Yet, compared to what happened next, it was survivable.

The roundup and deportation began in June 1942. Jews were sent to a transit camp called Westerbork in the northeastern part of Holland. From there, the Germans transported us to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen, and Theresienstadt. The picture you saw of me was at Theresienstadt.

By the end of 1942, we were still in our apartment — the only Jews among eight non-Jewish families. For me, the waiting was torture. I thought about suicide, but I didn’t have the courage. The illusion of hope didn’t last. On December 15, 1942, the guillotine fell. Six armed Dutch policemen stormed our apartment and gave us fifteen minutes to gather a bag each. It was almost a relief. I was already a dead man, so whatever happened, I’d deal with it.

Two weeks after arriving at Westerbork, the Germans transported my parents and sister to Auschwitz and sent both my brothers to Sobibor. After the war, I discovered that my parents and sister went directly from the train to the gas chamber. I never discovered how the Nazis murdered my brothers. Please God, they died killing Germans during the Sobibor uprising.

The Nazis gave the Westerbork Jewish Committee the authority to play God — to choose which Jew to send to the death camps and who would stay behind. For the next eleven months, I remained unselected, assigned to a work detail repairing leaks and building structures. On January 18, 1944, the Committee deported me to Theresienstadt, a camp seventy kilometers (forty-two miles) north of Prague…

Theresienstadt was a hybrid camp — a ghetto administered by Jews appointed by the Nazis. For the Nazis, it was their “humane showcase” — an illusion they’d roll out to dupe naïve Red Cross inspectors. That’s why they selected me for Theresienstadt — to build a foolproof dummy camp. It worked. The camp orchestra played a recital of Brahms and the “kindly guards” smiled and acted chummy with their hand-picked group of recently fattened-up, well-dressed, and immaculately groomed prisoners.

All an inspector needed to do was raise the thin curtain, and he’d find the real Theresienstadt. Starvation. Disease. Vermin. And the ever-present sadism. Thirty-three thousand prisoners died in Theresienstadt, mostly from disease and malnutrition. Everyone was sick — coughing blood, open sores all over the body with puss oozing from every infected wound, and always, always scratching. The lice, fleas, and mites made you insane. You couldn’t sleep at night; you just wanted to tear your flesh right to the bone.

And then there was the constant hunger. Our rations for the day were under a thousand calories — mostly watery soup made from rotten vegetables and an occasional treat of stale bread. Grown men would fight over a moldy roll. I witnessed a man catch a rat that was trying to snatch a piece of bread from his pocket. In a state of total madness, he grabbed the rat by the tail and smashed it against a rock over and over again, screaming, “Don’t steal my bread.”

The Nazis had an insatiable appetite for cruelty. They had a favorite game: They’d line up a group of prisoners — maybe five or six of us — and they’d dangle rats by their tails, wave them in front of our faces, and then drop them down our drawers. We had to stand at attention while the squealing rats nibbled at our privates….

By the beginning of 1945, I weighed around thirty-seven kilos (eighty-five pounds). I had lost 40 percent of my body weight. I could hardly walk. From head to toe, I was covered with open wounds that drew flies like a magnet. The Nazis stopped transporting Jews to the death camps. We were either going to die in Theresienstadt or hang on until the Russians liberated us.

You can’t ask a dead man if he has a will to live. It’s merely a matter of fate. Neither life nor death had any meaning for me. At least, that’s what I thought until the Angel of Death stared right into my eyes. In May, the Nazis abandoned the camp, leaving us near dead to fend for ourselves. A group of us starving inmates broke into a grain bin and stuffed handfuls of raw barley and wheat berries into our mouths.

We were crazed animals at the doorstep of death following some instinct for survival. My stomach swelled up. The pain was unbearable, like I was about to explode. I did something I hadn’t done since the war began: I prayed. I begged God to let me defecate. I told him, “I’ve gone this far. Please don’t let me die.” I recited our holiest prayer, the Shema: Shema Yisroel
Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad — “Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.” And then it all came out — all the undigested grains. I sobbed and sobbed.

Deborah and I are both crying. The three of us sit quietly for a moment. Through her tears, Deborah tells Jacob, “I don’t know why you chose us to share your story; I feel honored that you did. Your story will live on with us.”

Eventually, Jacob returned to Holland, married a survivor, raised a family, developed a successful business, and learned to laugh again.

With resiliency, that indominable human spirit to survive and to live despite overwhelming obstacles, we can bounce back from the most horrific circumstances. Hard to imagine a reality more painful than Jacob’s.

4. Letting go, moving on, and experiencing gratitude — learning to live with severe physical limitations following a lifetime of physical activity and competitive sports. Michael Tobin’s story:

I’ll admit I’m a showoff: Two and a half years ago, at age seventy-two, I did twenty-five one-handed pushups at the Everest Base Camp, at an altitude of 19,000 feet. Since childhood I’ve been running, playing baseball, football, and lacrosse, wrestling, bicycling, practicing yoga and calisthenics, and climbing mountains — competing in everything from ping pong to road races. I loved to move — free and fast. I wrote about the joys of movement in my book:

We pick up the pace, moving together side by side. The wind is stronger, and the temperature has dropped a few degrees. Deborah’s face is red and moist. She smiles at me. I smile back. I’m breathing easily and effortlessly. The machine is working. Heart, muscles, lungs — the whole thumping, gasping, sweating, breathing organism working together, expressing the oneness of movement, taking you wherever it takes you, wherever you need to go.

Later in the book: Nothing can focus a mind more intently than a steep climb up a narrow, winding road on a warm midsummer day in Southeast France. This mind has a singular intention: to keep its legs moving, its breath steady, and the sweat from burning its eyes. When you’re climbing up an eighteen-degree slope, you don’t feel that delicious feeling of flow that comes from maintaining a steady pace on a flat surface. No, pedaling up a mountain is all about effort and will…

To fight your way through eighteen-degrees of resistance, you got to stare down gravity and make it blink. Call it mind over mass. Let’s say you make it to the top — never once dismounting, refusing to sacrifice your will to gravity. Now, you get your prize:

Eighteen degrees up means eighteen degrees down. Before you lies a beautiful sight: a long, steep decline that winds and falls at that same eighteen-degree gradient. Your former enemy, now your new best friend, will propel you down toward the earth’s center of mass. The circular motion of your wheels will join to accelerate your fall.

And off you go . . .

If you’re a serious skier, you know that sacred space where wild freedom and absolute control become one as you fly like the wind down a forty-degree black diamond trail. Fear is the enemy of freedom and mastery…

You’re a moment away from the divine, from that unearthly sense that your bike is more than an extension of you. You lean into the hill, let gravity work, and then you fly . . . You let go, and you let the road, and your bike, and your skill propel you at a speed that, only years later, will make you think, “I must have been crazy.” Yes, at that moment you are crazy.

In the summer of 2019, we were on a 130-mile trek in Scotland when my left foot started to drag, my balance became shaky, and my left arm began to involuntarily spasm. We went to a doctor on the Isle of Skye. She thought I had a stroke. We returned to Israel and went straight to the hospital. The MRI was definitive: I had five fused disks in my neck. The doctors agreed that without surgery I’d be a cripple. Two weeks later, I had major surgery on my cervical spine. The doctors made it clear that the best the operation could do would be to slow the neurological deterioration.

Today, twenty-two months later, I walk with a hand-carved cane; I have chronic (mild) pain in my left shoulder, my left hand, and in both hips; and I have a hot right foot — not hot to the touch but hot from the inside. Gone are the days of high-altitude, one-handed pushups; farewell to scrambling over boulders and walking on narrow ledges; bye bye to the old guy doing squats on the medicine ball while the gym jocks cheer, “Go, Superman.” Hell, I’m happy if I can hobble the quarter of a mile from my parking lot to my office without stopping multiple times.

My transition from a serious athlete to a man with serious physical limitations happened in the blink of an eye. To say I accepted my new reality at the speed at which my reality changed would be a monumental exaggeration. I dutifully followed Kubler Ross’s stages: denial, anger, grief, and acceptance. Now, I would say that I’ve arrived at Gratitude — Gratitude for all my years of injury free physical pleasure. Gratitude for the extraordinary experiences this body gave me. Gratitude for the opportunity to challenge myself physically and mentally; to overcome fear and insecurity.

Yet, here’s the rub: There’s a major problem with being called Supermanand believing it: Hubris. You know — that feeling that you’re better than anyone else; that you’re invincible. It kills compassion; fuels judgment; and makes a mockery out of gratitude. It’s dangerous to believe your omnipotent. Life, Fate, or God doesn’t like competition.

So, I got it. I had no choice. I let go of the idea of who I was — not the enthusiastic kid who loves challenges; not the spiritually-seeking grown up who believes that we get the reality we need in order to grow; nor the curious fellow interested in exploring new horizons — none of those. I let go of believing I could defy death and decay. I accepted the most obvious of truths: I own a body which will one day be food for worms. Yet, like all humans, I, too, have a spirit that can soar. That spirit can fly down a mountain at fifty miles an hour, or it can reach extraordinary heights writing about my beloved wife, Deborah.

See, what I realized was this: Sometimes (perhaps always if we look carefully), when one door closes, another opens. I wouldn’t have discovered the writer in me if I hadn’t lost the athlete. One part of me had to die, for another to be reborn.

Such is the cycle of life.

5. Faith — accepting the unspeakable; finding meaning and purpose in tragic lost. The personal story of my daughter’s mother-in-law, Leah Atali:

Leah just turned eighty. She’s a tiny woman with a big smile. Her eyes laugh when she talks; her head bobs in tune to the rhythm of her sentences; and she’s always curious about what you’re up to, how you’re doing, and if you’re hungry or thirsty. She’s the mother of seven; the grandmother of forty, and the great grandmother of twenty-five.

Her oldest son was knifed to death by a terrorist. Her father and older sister were murdered by the Nazis. While her mother was in Auschwitz, she hid with Righteous Gentiles in a Paris apartment. After the war, she refused to return to the emaciated stranger that someone said was her mother.

Leah believes. She believes in a Just God even if we can’t understand “His Ways.” She remembers and she mourns, but she never despairs. She’s created rituals to keep the memory of her family and her son alive. Her story, she claims, is the story of the Jewish people. We suffer great losses, but we never give up; we never lose hope in a better future.

Faith, she says, sustains us… is us. That’s how we live with the unfathomable, the unknowable.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

My dream would be to create a foundation devoted to uncovering and supporting excellence in hidden places. I would utilize a team of experts from a variety of disciplines — the Arts, Athletics, Entrepreneurship, Leadership, and Humanitarianism — to scour the globe to identify, find, and support those extraordinarily passionate and committed humans who operate under the radar to pursue their dreams. We need to give opportunities to those potential difference-makers so they can actualize their God-given abilities. The world will be a better place for them and us if they do.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

Tim Ferriss, because he knows how to ask the right questions. I believe we’d have an amazing dialogue about love, identity, joy, and suffering.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is drmichaeltobin.comRiding the Edge, A Love Song to Deborah, published by Greenleaf Book Group, will be available on Amazon and other venues in mid-July in print, audiobook, and e-book formats.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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