Thomas Wictor

How we survive

How we survive

I just told someone the plot of my next novel. The reaction was stupefaction. I understand, because it’s going to be a stupefying book. But that reaction made me think. So here’s a post on how we survive bad news, awful experiences, and hideous knowledge. Everybody’s different; what works for me won’t fit the bill for others. Still, I learned how to survive by reading accounts of fellow survivors. This might help a person—or more than one person—cope.

Let’s make this theoretical.

Theoretically, how would I accommodate learning that my worst fears were not only true but had been surpassed by an order of magnitude? How would I keep on living in what was for all intents and purposes a nightmare from which I couldn’t escape?


The answer is that I believe in an entity I call the Planner; and I believe that the Planner is benign; and I believe that if we’re open to help, it will be given. The help takes the form of signs and patterns that offer strength.

I’m not a Trekker, but I love the concept of the Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order 1 or the Non-Interference Directive, was the embodiment of one of Starfleet’s most important ethical principles: noninterference with other cultures and civilizations. At its core was the philosophical concept that covered personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned. The Prime Directive was viewed as so fundamental to Starfleet that officers swore to uphold the Prime Directive, even at the cost of their own life or the lives of their crew.

In order for us to have free will, the Planner must follow a kind of Prime Directive. That’s why I never liked it when the survivor of an airliner crash, for example, said, “God was looking out for me.”

Why you? Why not the person who sat next to you?

It also bugs me when someone says, “God must’ve saved you for a reason. You have work to do.”

People are free to believe anything they want. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong. However, my own personal belief is that the Planner does not interfere to save lives. That would be unjust, and the Planner is perfectly just. All the bad stuff we see happening around us? It’s either pure chance, or it’s other people. The Planner has nothing to do with it.

Free will means we can choose to do great evil. If the Planner stepped in to protect us from all evil, we would in effect be the same as the protected antelope of a safari park. We’d be dumb herbivores with no chance to grow and improve.

You know how they say—whomever “they” are—that free speech isn’t absolute? You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, right? Well, free will is absolute. It has to be, or else it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as qualified free will.

When others express their free will, people suffer. I’ve suffered greatly because others chose to harm me in ways I can never reveal. But during times of horrendous, end-of-the-world agony, I’ve received what I interpret as signs that I’m not alone, and if I can marshal my strength, I’ll be all right.

Recently I wrote of what Tim and I think was a visit from our mother. The reason we think it was Mom is that at the time, we were under some kind of psychic assault that had intensified to the point of absurdity. Though there were massive crashes in Tim’s house that sounded like filing cabinets falling over, nothing would ever be out of place.

We heard loud tapping in the walls, but when we put our hands right where the sound originated, we couldn’t feel a thing. As the tak-tak-tak, tak-tak-tak kept up, there was no actual impact against our palms. Things flew across the room. The floors bulged. Voices spoke gibberish. And Dad called my name as clear as a bell as I was dealing with some Wahabbist lunatic.

When Tim and I got very upset, all this crap would intensify, as though it fed on our misery. And then Tim smelled roses, but not a cloying, nauseating sweetness. He said it was almost astringent, as though it were cleaning the house. After that, the disturbances stopped.

The scent of roses is associated with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of parental loss. Tim told me that my father carried a laminated card with a picture of Saint Thérèse and a prayer. I don’t know what the prayer was; apparently Catholics pray to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux when they feel worthless, or when their lives seem meaningless.

I like her face. It’s very subtle. She seems kind but incredibly tough. I don’t see her accepting excuses.

My mother was also kind but tough. Here she is with her friend Sandy May.


While Dad was dying, someone called and had the nerve to criticize my mother for not showing enough emotion. The caller complained that she was tired of Mom’s “upbeat platitudes.” What Mom had just said was, “We’re managing as well as can be expected.”

For the only time in my life, I saw my mother pull out a Bowie knife and eviscerate someone, without even raising her voice.

“Are you telling me how to react to my husband’s impending death?” she asked. “Do you expect me to sob on your shoulder? Is that it? Well, I’ll stop talking to you like you’re five when you stop acting like you’re five. Excuse me, I’m not finished. Did I say you were not allowed to visit? Answer my question, please. All right, you admit I never said that. Good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

It went on and on until the caller blubbered out her defeat and hung up. Mom was shocked at her own power. I’m convinced that after she died, my mother became that person forever. Why wouldn’t she? And maybe she and Saint Thérèse showed up the day Tim smelled roses, and they dragged someone out by the ear. Or as Tim said, used a broom. Metaphorically. As I said, I don’t think direct intercession takes place, but maybe a stern talking-to or a broom was all it took.

My father was in many ways the strongest person I’ve known. At the same time, he lacked the strength to stand up to the forces that controlled his life. He rationalized his sins, he reveled in alcoholic Weltschmerz, and he convinced himself that being a father who made toys for his children would negate his more unsavory decisions. Here’s my brother Paul in the amazing Fokker that Dad built.


I was in love with a Peruvian idol Mom had, so one Christmas I asked for my own. Instead of buying me an idol, Dad carved one.


He was an engineer who should’ve followed a different path. Dad was happiest when hanging around airports. Here’s a shot of the time he and Tim watched the restored Northrop N-9M flying wing dance across the sky. Dad was about as demonstrative as the wooden idol he carved for me. Those are his hands in the photo; you can see the joy that momentarily blotted out his guilt.


How do I survive? I trust the Planner, and I know that we all wind up where we belong, based on our choices. It’s natural law. I believe that we’re offered multiple chances at this thing we call life. Sometimes we get help, maybe in the form of two ass-kicking women—one a saint and one a mommy—who were tired of weakness, self-indulgence, and refusal to take responsibility.

I have no idea. But I survive by accepting. All that happens is the result of free will. We can choose evil, and then we can repent and choose good. I think we have to make amends before we’re allowed another chance. It takes massive, Herculean, clanking balls of steel to say, “I did very bad things, and I’m sorry.”

At any rate, it’s out of my hands. That’s how I survive.


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