Surviving Our Catastrophes

Resilience and Renewal from Hiroshima to the COVID-19 Pandemic

From the National Book Award winner, a powerful and timely rumination on how we can draw on historical examples of “survivor power” to understand the upheaval and death caused by the COVID-19 pandemic—and collectively heal

“Lifton shows us why we must confront reality in order to save democracy.”
—Peter Balakian, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Ozone Journal

In this moving and ultimately hopeful meditation on the psychological aftermath of catastrophe, award-winning psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls forth his life’s work to show us how to cope with the lasting effects and legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is a thought-provoking examination of life in the face of COVID-19 from one of the most profound thinkers of our time.

When the people of Hiroshima experienced the unspeakable horror of the atomic bombing, they responded by creating an activist “city of peace.” Survivors of the Nazi death camps took the lead in combating mass killing of any kind and converted their experience into art and literature that demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit. Drawing on the remarkably life-affirming responses of survivors of such atrocities, Lifton, “one of the world’s foremost thinkers on why we humans do such awful things to each other” (Bill Moyers), shows readers how we can carry on and live meaningful lives even in the face of the tragic and the absurd.

Surviving Our Catastrophes offers compelling examples of “survivor power” and makes clear that we will not move forward by denying the true extent of the pandemic’s destruction. Instead, we must truly reckon with COVID-19’s effects on ourselves and society—and find individual and collective forms of renewal.


“Lifton escorts us on a soul-searching journey and gives us an emotional and intellectual road map for accepting and living through catastrophes using what he calls ‘survivor power.’ This book is not just a captivating read; it’s also a life-affirming experience.”
—Dr. Michael Osterholm
“A poignant, beautifully crafted, and compelling case for optimizing our survival as individuals and as a species, Surviving Our Catastrophes is the culmination of a lifetime of inquiry and study of the most horrible and horrifying things human beings do to each other and their ensuant moral injury. Lifton shows how we might and sometimes do heal from such events and their aftermath through bearing witness, remembering, public mourning, and above all, widespread social action and activism. He also shows us how we might come to prevent impending disasters stemming from the human mind when we fail to recognize our common humanity. ”
—Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) and author of Full Catastrophe Living and Coming to Our Senses
“Lifton, more than anyone alive today, can serve as a wise and lucid guide . . . [to] the remarkably life-affirming responses of survivors of atrocities, and the larger human capacity for collective renewal.”
—Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score
“Thought-provoking. . . . Surviving Our Catastrophes is an absorbing sociological study focused on survivors—the keys to social renewal after disasters strike.”
Foreword Reviews
“If the human race can look back without despair on what it did to itself in the twentieth century (and may well be about to do again), then we should thank the unflinching wisdom of Robert Jay Lifton. This short, utterly necessary book is written at the climax of a very long life, by a man who has looked straight into the black sun of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and yet preserved his moral eyesight. . . . Lifton writes here about victims who become survivors . . . of catastrophes present and to come: COVID-19, nuclear threat, climate change. We have to learn from the survivors of catastrophe ‘if we are to learn the truth about ourselves, if we are to go on living as a species.’”
—Neal Ascherson, Scottish journalist and author of Black Sea and the novel The Death of the Fronsac
“This exquisite distillation of a genius-life’s wisdom turns our age of troubles into a time of unexpected affirmation, abundant possibility. Robert Jay Lifton’s briefest book is—stunningly—his magnum opus.”
—James Carroll, author of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie
“Lifton shows us why we must confront reality in order to save democracy.”
—Peter Balakian, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Ozone Journal
“The COVID-19 pandemic appears to us a catastrophe like no other. And yet from the Holocaust to Hiroshima to the War on Terror, the pandemic is but the leading edge of a catastrophic century. To make sense of the plague—to understand it as medical challenge, moral conundrum, and societal wound—demands the rare writer who has confronted the century’s horrors. In its wisdom and humanity, Surviving Our Catastrophes is an essential book.”
—Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El MozoteTorture and Truth, and Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War
“A thoughtful, pithy, and inspiring narrative. . . . Written with the authority of experience, this book offers a viable path to true recovery.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Readers will cry and cheer as they immerse themselves in Lifton’s wise, chilling, enlightening, and compassionate book.”
Booklist (starred review)
“[Surviving Our Catastrophes] cuts through the existential fog to reveal something like hope. . . . Lifton’s wisdom is worth reading—and heeding.”
The Washington Post
“With the same intellectual rigor and passionate commitment he has brought to his life’s work, Robert Jay Lifton explains how the way we process and memorialize catastrophe—Hiroshima, the AIDS plague, the murderous early days of the COVID pandemic—can reveal, and mobilize, what he calls our ‘human commonality.’ It’s a book we can all be grateful for.”
—Daniel Okrent, author of The Guarded Gate and Last Call
“Lifton makes a difficult subject accessible . . . the book feels almost like a conversation. In this summation of a lifetime’s work, he distills the wisdom gained from bearing intimate witness to survivors of history’s most terrible events, and offers us all a message of hope.”
—Dr. Judith Herman, author of Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice
“Lifton offers a powerful and clear physical and spiritual road map of how to navigate our pain after a personal or global disaster: see it, feel it, own it, share it, and use it.”
—Sohaila Abdulali, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

News and Reviews

The New Yorker

Read an interview with author Robert Jay Lifton about how to maintain hope in an age of catastrophe in The New Yorker.


Read an interview with Robert Jay Lifton and Goats and Soda, NPR's global health and development blog, about Surviving Our Catastrophes.

Washington Post

Read a review of Surviving Our Catastrophes in the Washington Post.

Books by Robert Jay Lifton

The Climate Swerve
Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival

Robert Jay Lifton

Losing Reality
On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry

Robert Jay Lifton

Goodreads Reviews