The Martian Teaches Us About Resilience

Last week, I finally saw The Martian. The film is, on the surface, about a botched space mission that leaves Matt Damon stranded on Mars. It’s also a film for anyone who’s found themselves thousands of miles away from the life they’d planned. If you’ve lost a child, lost a spouse, survived a crime, been disabled, been diagnosed with a critical illness, or have otherwise had the wheels fall off your life, you likely have had moments when you feel alone on a strange planet with no guarantee of making it back home.

The Martian is, above all else, a love story to human resilience and shows how even in the face of hopelessness, there is always hope. When watching the film, I thought about four messages that prove helpful when you are emotionally stranded on Mars:

1. Work can save you.

My favourite lines in the film were these:

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

You can choose to give up or you can get to work. One of the most powerful real-life examples of this is Madonna Badger, the advertising executive whose children and parents died in a fire in Christmas of 2011. In the November 2013 issue of Vogue, she wrote an article titled, “The Long Road Back: How to Keep Going After the Unimaginable Happens.” She slowly started to rebuild her life through work. In the early days, she was not able to run her company, but she was able to help the friend of a friend sort through a warehouse full of antiques. In her essay, she credits the work with saving her life:

Every day was an actual treasure trove. But more important, as I spent day upon day going through box upon box looking for beautiful objects, two things happened. One, I had to stay in the present moment. It’s hard to go too far down one road or another when you’re using your hands and your eyes and your brain so intently. The second thing was that as we found old photographs, I was forced to reckon with loss, with transience.

Doing the work did not bring back her children and her parents, but it helped her deal with the loss. Eventually she was able to return to work, remarry, and regain a life with the possibility of joy in it.

In the early days, when trauma is fresh, a period of rest is required. But as soon as you are able to: clean out a closet, write a thank you letter, put together a list of things to be done. Do one small thing and then another. When all of the small things add up, they just might bring you home.

2. Attempting to get home is better than staying where you are.

In the film, the next scheduled trip to Mars is years away and Matt Damon knows that chances are slim he will ever return to earth. But that does not stop him from trying. There are many situations where there is no guarantee you will ever return home. But the journey will take you somewhere that is likely better than where you are right now. As author Douglas Bloch puts it in the title of his book on depression and anxiety, “when going through hell…don’t stop.”

3. Being far from home is not devoid of joy.

The Martian is not a joyless film. Matt Damon manages to find small pleasures in his situation even if it is less than ideal. It reminded me of the lovely piece Emily Perl Kingsley wrote titled, Welcome to Holland, that describes the experience of parenting a special needs child. In the essay, she writes about planning a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland. At first, it is terrible shock that you did not end up where you’d planned to go. You have no idea how to get around as you are totally unprepared. And you are lonely since most people you know have gone to Italy as planned. And yet, Holland is not terrible. Holland is not without moments of joy. As you get used to your new destination, you discover beauty that perhaps could not have been found on the route you’d planned.

4. You can replace your toolkit if it gets damaged.

In The Martian, much of the equipment Matt Damon needs to try to get home has been destroyed. He has to improvise a lot, as we often must do in life. Alice Anderson is a writer and professor who suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury in 2009. She had to relearn many skills and rebuild her life. Her forthcoming memoir, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, contains this beautiful first line: “We make chapels of our scars.” We can take the things that almost broke us and use them to build our new lives.

One of my favourite expressions is the title of Charles Bukowski’s book, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. The Martian explores how well Matt Damon walks through the fire, and the lessons imparted apply to those of us who’ve been stranded on earth as well.


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About Jen Lawrence