Resilience

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on May 31, 2016

A researcher working with a professor back East called me recently to talk about resilience. Why do some people bounce back after a traumatic incident like paralysis and why do others fail? Could it be genetic, i.e., a resilience gene, or is it more to do with how they see the world, especially the world going forward. All I could tell her was what happened to me post-injury, which was the sensation of starting life over as an infant and learning to master the simplest tasks. Somehow, neurologically or psychologically, or both, this led me to feel I could master the much bigger tasks I had before me, like a stagnant career, a mountain of debt, and how to deal with staring. Whatever the alchemy involved, it worked. I’m still here twenty years later, with a tad more control over such matters.

In this conversation, I first heard about the Three P’s. Then I read a remarkable commencement speech by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg where, in discussing her turmoil after the sudden death of her husband a year ago, she also brought up the Three P’s. Then I knew the universe was telling me something. Now I’m telling you.

The Three P’s, if you aren’t aware, is a formulation created by psychologist Martin Seligman, one of the godfathers of the “Positive Psychology” movement. They address the three most common roadblocks to recovery after a traumatic event. In Ms. Sandberg’s mind, combating these tendencies is the key to personal resilience.

P #1 is personalization. This is the belief that when something awful happens to us, we are somehow at fault. Like Oedipus, the flaw is in ourselves. This was my complete frame of mind the moment I was paralyzed and still lingers in the substrata of my thinking. How could acquiring this paralyzing disorder, transverse myelitis, on a Tuesday afternoon be a random twist of fate? Surely I had something to do with it. Doctor after doctor has almost convinced me that wasn’t the case. As Ms. Sandberg puts it, “This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.” Randomness often rules our lives.

P #2 is pervasiveness, the belief that this one tragic event will govern all aspects of our lives. Everything – work, family, income, social standing – will be contaminated by this single occurrence. This is the wide-spread tendency among the newly-disabled to define themselves solely by their injury, as in, Allen “Paralyzed For Life” Rucker. Detaching yourself from your injury is a big step in getting on with your life. It is not who you are, just a bad thing that happened to you.

P #3 is permanence. This is the belief that the sorrow and heartache you feel will last forever. The sense that you will never recover is a kind of emotional addiction. You can withdraw into your own melancholy and avoid the difficult task of reconnecting to the world. You have every right to feel sad for as long as you feel sad – there are no rules about this – but know that you won’t feel sad forever. It will pass and you will move ahead.

By the way, these roadblocks can apply to any traumatic event in your life, from getting jilted by the girl/boy of your dreams to losing your house in a global financial crisis. Very few of us get out of this world unscathed by such trauma.

There you go. Take these three P’s for a month and if you don’t feel better about yourself, well, do it again for another month. There are no guarantees here. If there were a surefire recipe for resilience, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it. I’d be applying for the copyright.

Randomness aside, the one thing you are in control of, or can learn to be in control of, is how you imagine your own personal tale going forward. Start with: no, this doesn’t mean you are one of life’s losers; no, this won’t besmirch every future experience; and no, your despair is not permanent. In the end, Ms. Sandberg says, “Finding gratitude and appreciation is the key to resilience.” I’m sure you’ve heard that before, but think of it not as an edict from corporate headquarters, but as a mode of thinking that could actually make you healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

Okay – forget the wealthy part. But if any of this leads to a gold mine, please let us know. We want our cut.

© 2016 Allen Rucker

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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life