Bent, not broken

Have you ever wondered why people react so differently to their disabilities? Some give up and while their lives away without purpose; others become aggressive; and some develop a sense of entitlement. But then there are some who pick themselves up, pull through and become stronger, more compassionate and more grace-filled than before.

Imagine yourself in your worst nightmare. You were captured by a dissident group in a foreign country and placed in an iron cage with your feet shackled to the bars and with little space to move your arms. You are fed, clothed and taken care of, but you are never allowed out of the cage. Not ever. And now it is five years later…

This is the life of a quadriplegic but with one difference; the cage is not a cage of iron, it is that person’s own body.

How do people overcome this imposed bondage without going insane?

The answer lies in the concept of resilience – the capacity to bend without breaking and to then return to the original condition.

But, you may ask, their bodies are broken: how can they bounce back?

We place a lot of emphasis on our body; we feed it, we dress it up, we play and work with it. And when our bodies are broken we can feel as if our identity has been taken away. But this is not true. Our bodies are only a small part of who we are. Our real identity is to be found in our soul and our spirit and our mind. This is what resilience is all about. If we cannot bounce back in body, we can bounce back in spirit and in mind and in soul.

Much has been written about resilience. Survivors of major disasters, soldiers captured during wars and persons who suffered personal tragedies have been studied in order to find out what sets those who bounce back apart from those who remain traumatised and “stuck”. Various suggestions include facing up to their situation, the support of friends, turning to religion and spirituality. However I believe that the art of resilience can be encapsulated in three concepts: hope, optimism and a compelling “why”.

Hope is born of faith; the belief in Someone larger than ourselves. If we believe that sometime in the future things will change for the better, we are able not only to cope but also to thrive. Hope and faith are progenies of the soul and our souls connect us to God. But for a person with quadriplegia hope is often an abstract that is constantly under attack by the realities of our existence. This is where faith kicks in; the belief that God is here with me; that He understands; that He cares… I believe in miracles but I have come to realise that if God dishes out miracles freely, we would all become spoilt-rotten celestial lap-dogs. And God wants more for us than that. So for me as a paraplegic progressing to quadriplegia, to make my hope tangible I decided to hold God to His Word: I invited a few quadriplegic friends to run a 400m hurdles race with me in about 50 to 60 years from now, in our new bodies.

Optimism is a child of my spirit. Real optimism is not viewing life through rose-coloured spectacles. Blind optimism does not work. It is dangerous and will always disappoint. True optimism is the ability to see our reality for what it is but then to look more broadly; to positively reappraise our trying circumstances. It is the capacity and discipline to set problem-focused, goal-directed coping mechanisms in place. It is the ability to infuse meaning into the events that shape our minds. Optimism is the cement that binds our hope for something better with our here-and-now reason for being – our compelling “why”.

We tend to focus on who and what we are, but as we get older we start to ask why we are. In 1976 Steve Wozniac and Steve Jobs started a revolution. Their weapons were not guns and bombs, it was the personal computer. Their aim was not to overthrow Government; it was to empower the little man to take on corporate business. That was Apple’s reason for being then and today still remains its compelling “why”. Most people don’t remember Samuel Pierpont Langley, but many know who the Wright brothers were. Samuel Langley was contracted to build the first airplane and was given all the resources he needed, but the Wright brothers built and flew the first airplane – on a shoestring. Samuel Langley was doing a job; Orville and Wilbur wanted to fly. It was their compelling “why”.

All of us need a compelling “why”. It focuses our minds. It shows us our reason for being.

So, the hope of our souls, the realistic optimism of our spirits and the compelling “whys” that focus our minds are the cornerstones of resilience. And where we see people falter; whether they are quadriplegics or able-bodied or deaf or blind, we do not stand back and say: “This is a job for a psychologist.” Sow a seed of hope, show them the bigger picture and help them find their reason for being. And, in a small way, you will help to restore a sense of value in a broken person.

Great reads on the topic:

  • Resilience by Steven M Southwick & Dennis
    S Charney (Cambridge University Press) 2012
  • Start With Why by Simon Sinek (Penguin) 2011

Ida’s Corner is a regular column by George Louw, who qualified as a medical doctor, but, due to a progressing spastic paralysis, he chose a career in health administration. The column is named after Ida Hlongwa, who worked as caregiver for Ari Seirlis for 20 years. Her charm, smile, commitment, quality care and sacrifice set the bar incredibly high for the caregiving fraternity.
email: georgelou@medscheme.co.za

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