Elizabeth Smart was rescued on March 13, 2003, less than a week after my sixteenth birthday. That birthday was particularly memorable: it was the first since my mother died less than three months earlier. I was estranged from my father and living with my best friend’s family and had been back to school for only a few weeks. The day of my birthday I had stayed home from school, feeling too sick to attend. I wandered through their house the entire day trying to find something to kill myself with; I’ve never been suicidal before that day or after, but facing the fact that my life was indeed going on without my mother was more than I felt like I could handle. I wasn’t close to my family, and wasn’t a particularly likable teenager so I had few friends. When my mother, my best friend, died, I felt as though my life ended along with hers.
I vividly remember standing in my friend’s kitchen watching news coverage of Elizabeth Smart’s rescue. After everything she had been through, she still looked okay. She looked happy. She survived. I thought to myself: Maybe I could too.
Since her rescue, I’ve followed Smart’s story with a keen interest. Despite our vastly different experiences, I viewed her as a kindred spirit: we walked out of the pits of hell at exactly the same moment in time.
Earlier this week, Smart told her story in a two-part A&E special, gripping in its detailed horror of what she endured, but also inspiring given the strength and the resiliency of its subject. Since her escape, Smart has become a victim’s advocate, author and public speaker. The primary focus of the series was Smart’s biography, but there were also glimpses of Smart’s present day life. In one clip, Smart tells the audience:
“Every single one of us has a story. Every single one of us has had something happen to us in our life… I mean, hopefully it’s not all kidnapping (laughs). It’s not what happens to us that defines who we are. It’s what we decide to do. It’s our choices that define who we are. Whatever it is you’re going through, don’t give up.”
In a time when sexual assault and harassment is center stage in the United States, Smart provides an inspiring example of how a victim of the worst possible abuse can and has turned lemons into lemonade. She explains at the end of the two-hour special that she simply “chose joy.”
After my mother’s death, after that initial dark period (which lasted two years, let’s be real), I too decided to choose joy. And then, a few months after the cloud started to lift, my father committed suicide. And yet, even after that, I still chose joy.
Just three days after her husband, Jake, died, my dear friend Mary Katharine Ham explained her desire to do the same. At a memorial service at Jake’s old office after his unexpected death (he was in an accident while doing a charity bike ride), Mary Katharine had the entire room laughing for almost twenty minutes, and her speech is truly something to behold and worth a listen. In it, she said, “My mission, and you’ll really have to help me with this, is to live unafraid. And to live without sadness bogging me down… I’m going to ask all of you… not to look on me, and us, with sadness. Don’t let us walk into a room and be sad trombone. We are not that. We are going to live the way he wanted us to live… Fast and furious.” She then went on to tell some jokes about their “epic journey” watching the entire series of movies.
Smart’s outlook on life is what got her through her ordeal, what got Mary Katharine through hers, and it’s the same thing that got me through my teens as well, which involved pulling one parent off of life support and enduring another committing suicide.
Smart’s case was an anomaly; what can we really learn from a rare kidnapping case from fifteen years ago? But Smart’s resilience and her simple decision to choose joy, which has kept her a functional human being long after her rescue, is a lesson and an inspiration to us all.
Image: A&E TV