Resilience through learning

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 02, 2020 # Lifestyle

In my dotage, I have learned that you can build resilience, one of the best tools in your emotional arsenal, in many different ways. When I first became paralyzed, I thought resilience was a built-in mental state – you either had it or didn’t. I’m still not sure that there isn’t a genetic factor involved, but even so, you have to use it, so to speak, or lose it. You could have the muscular potential of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but if you just sit around watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies your whole life, no one will ever know it.

One way to build resilience is through other people’s real-life stories. The strongest reference in my early days of paralysis was my own mother’s life story. She was dealt a terrible hand when my father died of a freak accident at 36, leaving her to raise four children, ages nine to two, on her own. She never flinched. She had a ferocious resolve to do right by her kids, often at the expense of her own personal happiness. It was only during my own life crisis that I realized how fearlessly she had dealt with hers. Other paralysis stories also had a profound effect: Christopher Reeve, the cartoonist John Callahan, the journalist John Hockenberry. laptop

To this day, finding pertinent first-person stories is the advice I give anyone going through something like this. Rarely will you read about or talk to another paralyzed person full of hopelessness and despair. I did read a novel recently, very well-written, where the protagonist, an architect who became a quad in adulthood, worked for three hundred pages to rebalance his life and, in the end, committed suicide. I’m sure there are millions out there in that state, but they are rarely written. Most disability stories convey some pathway to hope.

A second road to resilience is to develop some emotional scar tissue. The demographic of middle-class baby boomers, and certainly the generations after us, have not had to fight for food and shelter, not run a family farm, not going to war, in other words, have not been truly tested. We don’t experience evil; we watch it on TV. Look how many English majors came out of the 1960s and ’70s. Not a life fraught with adversity. I was an English major, thank you, and I had personally never been tested for resilience or emotional strength until I became paralyzed at 51. I had had the experience of growing up without a father, which probably left some mark, but had never encountered real hardship like facing mortal danger, losing everything in a forest fire, or driving drunk where someone else dies. If you have some of that scar tissue from misfortunes in the past, you are, ironically, ahead of the game. You are better prepared for the next blow.

Only recently did I come across a third way to increase your resilience – active learning. In a New York Times article entitled “Expand Your Brain To Build Up Emotional Strength,” they argue that learning a new skill or body of knowledge, at any age, is great preparation for an unexpected trauma. It demands risk-taking and determination and promotes self-confidence and the ability to change. To quote the article, you move from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” It’s not what you set out to learn, but the passion and commitment you put into it. As one expert says, “Something I learned over here helps me over there.”

I realize that I’ve known this all along, just not in so many words. When I was first paralyzed, I, like most people, threw myself into learning the rudiments of living with this condition. I had to learn how to sit up without falling over, transfer from one surface to another without fear, do all sorts of things with half a body. That effort to master small, everyday tasks gave me the confidence to tackle much bigger tasks in my life. It gave me a positive charge, the will to engage in a difficult activity instead of trying to avoid it. For others, learning to ballroom dance or studying French philosophy might have the same effect.

There are probably fifty other ways to enhance your preparedness for emotional blows of one kind or another. Physical exercise, for instance, is a classic method of putting yourself in a positive state of mind. Since you don’t know what might happen, it’s good to pursue one kind of conditioning or another. Ideally, it will help if you stay flexible, ready to adapt to a difficult challenge, ready to confront your fears, not run from them.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.