Surviving “Survival Mode”

The book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst is a humorous children’s story about a boy named Alexander who has “one of those days.” Nothing, I mean nothing, goes right for him. From the time he pops out of bed in the morning until he crawls back into bed that night, his day stinks. This poor little guy falls, spills, trips, crashes, and encounters one interrupting, aggravating circumstance after another. In fact, as the story progresses, he begins to say, “I think I’ll move to Australia,” believing that life in Australia would be much better. It’s one of those days that Alexander hopes to never, ever have again.

Have you ever had one of those days? A day when it seemed that no matter what you tried to do, where you may have gone, or the choices you made, the day simply went from bad to worse? I call them “Alexander days.” I know life in Australia wouldn’t be any better, but on those days, I certainly wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to go there.

Truth be told, sometimes the following dawn does not lead to a better day. The Alexander day spills over into the next day, then the day after that, and the day after that . . . and the day after that. I’ve tried to find a book titled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month or Year or Life, but it doesn’t exist. Probably because, when bad days turn into bad months and bad months continue, we feel terribly disappointed. Then, disappointment evolves into disillusionment . . . regardless of whether one is living in America or Australia.

But the days don’t stop coming, and the demands don’t stop growing. In fact, many of life’s duties and responsibilities can only be completed by you. For example, caring for a difficult or disabled child requires you to step up. No one else will raise your son or daughter, so you must do the work. Similarly, helping your partner or parent who is losing the battle with a terminal illness demands you face the day, every day, whether you feel like it or not. In fact, those in the mental health industry take careful consideration of the stress for those who give constant, supportive care to another. These researchers find that families living in these conditions have higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, physical illnesses, tendencies toward addictive behavior, spiritual struggles, and poor social support. These are only two of many situations that often lead to a survival-mode mentality.

Survival mode is the focused, determined, driven exertion of one’s energy toward getting through the demands at hand. It requires the employment of one’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical strength to just get by. It’s the attempt to manage a life that, for whatever reason, has become unmanageable. Living in survival mode takes a toll on the human spirit. People say that they feel “numb” or “blank,” as though they are “going through the motions.” Many report that they feel “empty,” “despondent,” “gloomy,” and “dead on the inside”; and some believe that if they lived somewhere else or with someone else or had something more, life would offer more hope.

Here’s some good news: Alexander days (or weeks or months) are universal—in one way or another, they’re experienced by everyone. Since time began, people have been forced to endure what felt like impossible circumstances. Glance through the pages of Scripture and you will find account after account of those who lived, at least for a time, in survival mode.

Let’s begin with Moses and those who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. For some of that time, their very basic needs for food, water, shelter, and safety were in question. They didn’t know what the dawn or the dusk would bring. But even after they knew how God would provide for them, they grumbled and complained (see Numbers 11).

The prophet Jeremiah preached for about 45 years and was never able to convince the people of Judah to repent of their sins and return to the Lord. We read his very personal journal which says: “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me” (Lamentations 3:19-20 NIV).

The survival mode of the young shepherd is illuminated in Psalm 23. One modern-day shepherd speaks of leading sheep through the “valley of the shadow of death” as a most disturbing, terrifying, horribly dangerous ordeal for the flock because the sheep are entirely and completely dependent on the shepherd’s care for their survival.1 Not only is the journey difficult, the real darkness keeps the shepherd and the sheep focused on the next step. The sheep are surviving the frightful journey, while the shepherd is leading with a confident assurance . . . because this journey is for the flock’s goodness and wellness.

We are privy to another depiction of survival mode in Psalm 42. The writer penned these words:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. . . .
My tears have been my food day and night. . . .
I pour out my soul. . . .
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me? (Psalm 42:1, 3, 4, 5 NIV)

Apparently, the writer was enduring isolation, perhaps as a refugee existing in the fisted, clutching hands of taunting, abusing captors.2

The hushed words of King David are whispered in Psalm 13:1, “How long, O LORD? / Will you forget me forever?” beseeching his God to find him, remember him, and relieve him of his horrifying existence. For many years, David was relentlessly hunted, hotly pursued, and gravely stalked by his father-in-law, Saul, who desired nothing more than to kill him.

And then, we find even Paul the apostle—the pillar of steadfast faith—in a desperate situation. Tenderly transparent in his second letter to the Corinthians, he logs his life in survival mode:

We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 NIV)

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. (4:8-9 NIV)

We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away. . . . We fix our eyes not on what is seen. . . . For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (4:16-18 NIV)

As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; . . . dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (6:4-5, 9-10 NIV)

When we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. (7:5 NIV)

I have worked . . . been in prison . . . been flogged . . . been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits . . . countrymen . . . Gentiles . . . in the city . . . in the country . . . at sea . . . [and] from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (11:23-27 NIV)

There was given me a thorn (a splinter) in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to rack and buffet and harass me, to keep me from being excessively exalted. . . . Three times I called upon the Lord and besought [Him] about this and begged that it might depart from me (12:7-8 AMP)

I find three main challenges we face when trying to survive in survival mode.

First, we are alone and isolated. Being alone may mean physical aloneness, but it can also refer to feeling emotionally alone, spiritually isolated, or separated from one’s relational and social support.

Second, we are defenseless and helpless. The circumstances are unavoidable, future pain is inevitable, and self-defense is impossible.

Third, we are surrounded by darkness and doubt. The path ahead is utterly hidden from sight; all hope is lost.

If you feel alone, isolated, removed, forgotten, and in need of a strong defense and a glimmer of hope, I want to offer you that hope today. Regardless of your circumstances, the truth of God, found in His Word, stands as a shining ray of hope for those who choose to believe it. His Word offers significant encouragement for believers in Christ who are facing the three daunting challenges listed above.

First, you are never alone. We are promised that Christ will never, ever leave or forsake His own. He promises to be a constant helper in time of need. He promises to be faithful, to always be with us, and we can walk without fear because of this fact (see Joshua 1:5; Psalm 27:10; 139: 7-12; and Hebrews 13:5-6). So you can say with confidence, “I am not alone because my God is with me.”

Second, you are never without a defense. Those without Christ live without divine protection; but God repeatedly promises to protect His children. Psalm 23 describes God’s protection as a shepherd. Psalm 5:11-12; 31:1-3; and 32:7 speak of God’s protection as a shelter and refuge in time of need. Another proclaims,

The LORD is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.
The LORD protects the simplehearted;
when I was in great need, he saved me. (Psalm 116:5-6 NIV)

God’s Word reveals His faithfulness to shelter and protect His people. So, you can say with confidence: “I am not to fear because God is my refuge and strength.”

Third, you are never without a hope. The book of 1 Peter opens with the assurance of hope for those who know God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). This living hope is not in temporal outcomes or tangible things but, rather, in our future heavenly home with Christ. Life is but for a moment; eternity is forever. Therefore, when one chooses to remember heaven is our true home and earth is but a passing pit-stop, the soul is saturated with great hope. So, you can say with confidence: “I need not be discouraged; my hope is in Christ my Lord.”

You are not alone in your struggles and your pain. Even (and especially) great people of faith have also suffered and felt overwhelmed, “despair[ing] even of life,” as Paul said. Sometimes it takes everything in us to trust God. Sometimes it takes an excruciating time of waiting. As we read God’s Word and investigate the lives of His people, we can see that God never abandoned them. He had a plan for them, and He has a plan for us as well.

  1. Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalm 23: The Goodness of God,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 216-17.
  2. Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalm 42-43: Hoping in the Lord’s Salvation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 331.
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Colleen Swindoll serves as director of Special Needs Ministries at Insight for Living. From the personal challenges of raising a child with disabilities (her third child, Jonathan), Colleen desires to offer help and hope through writing and counseling to those facing disabling and despairing trials.