Matt Damon’s character, Mark Wattney, accidentally gets stranded on Mars during an emergency evacuation of the third manned Mars mission, Ares 3.
With the communications antenna broken, he has no way of letting NASA know that he has survived, and the next manned mission to Mars is planned in four years and will land 3200km away.
His food supplies will only last a third of that time, and he’s on a barren, waterless planet with no atmosphere and no oxygen. He is literally the only man on the planet, and if he doesn’t do it for himself then there’s no help coming.
1. Trials can happen at any time
Even at the height of your success you can be hit by the worst trial of your life.
In the movie, Wattney is halfway through a manned mission to Mars when everything goes wrong and he’s stranded. He’s obviously done everything right – he’s an astronaut, highly intelligent, a scientist and squeaky-clean enough to make the astronaut grade for a manned mission to Mars.
Even when the emergency event happens, it’s nothing that the commander, crew or Wattney did – it’s just a stroke of bad luck.
Regardless of where you are, what you’ve achieved or how far you’ve come in life, stay grounded. Life changes in an instant, for the good and the bad, and often you will have no way to stop or control it.
2. Keep working no matter what
Even though his situation looks absolutely hopeless, Wattney doesn’t stop working. He starts doing what he can and then he starts making plans and finding ways to do things.
Yes, all the plans eventually amalgamate to get him home, but more importantly the busyness keeps his mind busy.
So often in life we tend to sit down and feel sorry for ourselves when we’re hit by a situation or tragedy, and this is one of the worst ways we sabotage ourselves. We sit down and worry about it, thinking about every worst possible outcome and eventuality that we could face, pouring every ounce of our energy into creating a deeper and more complex problem with infinitely more pitfalls.
Keep busy, keep your mind distracted and keep moving slowly towards where you want to be. Do the most menial tasks if you have to, or exercise intensely to remove your mind from your problems.
Once you’ve stopped endlessly thinking about the issue, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to start seeing positive solutions and hope in the situation.
3. Trials can last a really long time
We live in a world of instant gratification, and the universe sees our lifespan as fitting into a timeline of billions and billions of years.
From the universe’s point of view, 3, 4, or 5 years is nothing in the scheme of things. In fact, from your eternal soul’s point of view, 3 or 4 years in a reincarnating soul’s lifespan of billions of years is also nothing.
For us though, living on this physical plane, 5 years feels like an eternity of hell. The intensity of that pain is exacerbated by the fact that we tend to live in the moment and so our experiences are felt more intensely.
Add to this our instant gratification culture where a solution doesn’t work unless it shows immediate results, and you have the perfect breeding ground for the universe to give you a beautiful lesson in patience. As someone who’s recently achieved that resonance, I’ll say having patience is well worth it – but the lesson is hard and expensive. Rather transcend this one.
4. Trials will end just as suddenly as they began
From almost beginning to end, The Martian covers Wattney’s trial time on Mars, and the movie basically ends in a moment when he hugs the other crew members and jokes with them.
That’s it – after nearly two years of survival and hard work, in that one little hug and anticlimactic moment, Wattney’s journey was over.
When you’re in a life trial, you can often remember a moment where it started – where things just started going wrong. If this isn’t your first trial then you’ll also likely remember a moment when the trial turned and everything in your life just changed for the better.
From death to birth, beginnings to ends, life always changes in a single instant. We spend our moments in between preparing for little life moments in which our world will be irrevocably changed.
As hard as your lessons have been, as hard as your trial was, there will come a moment when it’s over – it’s just finished and done. Life always changes in an instant – and your life can too.
5. You’ll make progress and then be knocked back
One of the saddest moments in the movie is when Wattney’s botany solution to keep himself fed is destroyed in an act of God.
You’ve felt with this man by this stage of the movie, and if possible, you’re as invested in that little garden as what he is. It is soul destroying when he walks back into the habitat and realizes that all his work is gone.
If you think it’s tough to lose something the first time around, imagine losing everything, building up from nothing and then having that last hope ripped away from you in an instant. That’s what he went through in that moment. I take my hat off to Matt Damon for even portraying that role so well.
Sometimes in life you’re going to pick yourself up by your drawstrings and make something happen and you’re going to be knocked back even harder. As someone who has made it through moments like that, I can only tell you that the strength, fortitude and peace you will gain from overcoming that kind of trial is beyond awesome, but the lesson hits you like a sucker punch. I can honestly only believe that these kinds of lessons are sent as tests of faith.
6. One step at a time
Right at the end of the movie, Wattney gives a class and says something along the lines of: ‘You just keep solving one problem and then the next and then the next. Eventually if you get to solve enough problems you can come home.’
If the challenge is too big to solve in one go then just solve the immediate problem in front of you and then the next one and then the next.
One step at a time, you just keep going, doing what you can with the resources you have available to you. You cannot try to do more than you can do, or you will land doing nothing.
7. Don’t give up hope
There’s a moment early in the movie where Wattney has been alone on Mars for three days, with no way to know if anyone knows he’s alive and no way to contact anybody.
As he’s standing and watching the sand storm blustering outside he declares, “I will NOT die.” A little later in the movie as he’s making progress on his survival plan he uses two statements: “In your face Neil Armstrong” and “F**k you Mars!”
Whatever hope you can find to hold onto, hold onto it. Find a reason to fight, to keep going. With hope you can sustain almost anything. It truly is the light of the human soul.
8. Miracles can happen
As Terry Pratchett says often in the Discworld series: one-in-a-million chances tend to come around nine-times-out-of-ten, when you’re in a situation where you really need them.
The fact that I don’t have to clarify the word miracle, that the concept is commonly understand, should already tell you that miracles are a lot more commonplace than we give them credit for.
Miracles often appear when there is no other hope, so chances are good if you’re not getting one it’s because the situation is still in your control. But be realistic, believe in miracles, and know that you are loved enough to be entitled to miracles too.
9. You already have everything you need around you
Once the shock begins to clear and the situation normalizes for Wattney, he begins to make the most amazing plans to escape and move on.
Amazingly he’s able to create everything he needs with what is around him, including equipment forgotten and left as lost, like the Mars Rover.
Sometimes you will find it in stuff that has been lost and thrown away, but you have everything you need around you. With a little bit of ingenuity and application of your mind, you can find a way to create a solution – you have everything you need.
Don’t give up and don’t focus on your limitations and what you don’t have. Only keep looking at what you do have.
10. Sometimes you really do know better
There are a few funny references in the movie that Wattney makes about stupid instructions NASA is sending him, and a reference to how he keeps telling NASA to ‘go have sex with themselves’ about certain instructions they’re trying to get him to follow.
When you’re on the ground in a situation, you can see better than those outside the situation what is going on. You’re actually in a better position to make judgment calls.
Likewise, all tests of faith involve an element of intuition, and you are learning to trust and listen to your intuition in these trials – often because we turn to God/the Universe and listen when we have no other option left.
Trust what your gut is saying to you. Listen to what others have to say, but make the best decision for you in that moment. No one will ever be able to see as well as you what you need.
11. You will find successes in your trials
In life coaching, the little successes you have along the way are commonly referred to as milestones.
Celebrating milestones and little wins is a must if you don’t want to go completely insane through a life trial like this.
Even if it’s something you create in your mind, or logic your way into, find and celebrate every small success you can, or you will honestly feel like you are on a never-ending uphill treadmill of doom and gloom.
There are two moments from the movie that really stand out as Wattney celebrating his wins. The first is when he does a video journal entry speaking about the fact that his Alma Mater sent him information saying that you have legally colonized an area if you’ve grown crops on it. Here he wins first person to colonize Mars.
The second instance is towards the end of the movie where Wattney instructs NASA control to call him Captain Blondbeard, because as he explains, he is in international waters and about to commandeer a space ship. Technically therefore, he is a space pirate.
The last two little wins and records Wattney sets are to be the fastest man in space and to fly like Iron Man. Any of these is enough to log him in the history books, but to him they were just what he did to make it, to survive.
Each was a challenge, a problem he had to solve. Yet each was enough to make him a God in the eyes of man.
12. You realize what really matters
When Mark Wattney’s eyes fill with tears when he hears the first human voice in nearly two years, you realize what a huge difference human contact makes for all of us.
When you see his joy and relief at being able to connect with people, have contact and hear voices again, I’d be very surprised to find a dry eye in the house.
And then look at his first question when he first makes text messenger contact with NASA control: how are the crew? Immediately he looks for more contact, a connection and reflection to show him that he matters.
Likewise when you consider what he went through to survive, what he was willing to do and the chances he was willing to take, it makes it very difficult to look at your own small challenges and think of them as significant and relevant. So you’ve skipped a few payments, lost a few assets, spent a few nights crying. You’ll be okay. We’ll all be okay.
Go home tonight, put your arms around the people you love and hold them tight. Tell them what they mean to you, and how empty and meaningless your life would be without them.
Life changes in an instant – for the good and the bad. Don’t live a life filled with unsaid words and regret.
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