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Second Opinion: Resilience as a metaphor
Imagine you are a freestyle skier executing an aerial maneuver. You are 60 feet in the air, having launched yourself on an impossibly steep trajectory. Somewhere between the glorious rise and certain fall of take-off and landing, a tiny seed of doubt germinates as you analyze your speed, balance and body position. In that microsecond of awareness you know, that on this day, disaster and landing walk hand in hand. Your thoracic spine crushes on impact. Doctors use the word paraplegia and you know that means a wheelchair. Can you visualize it? Some may not relate to this scenario, it will not resonate as a potential scene in their life because, after all, they would never consider freestyle skiing in the first place!
Let’s try a different scenario. Now imagine you are a successful, athletic businessman who embraces life at full speed. Others whisper with both awe and envy that you are lucky, you have it all, but at 45 your physician informs you that you have a rare cancer. Your only chance for survival involves removal of the liver you cannot do without. You must find a compatible living donor — a friend or relative who will give you a portion of their liver, undergo risky transplant surgery and, should you survive the complications, you will require potent anti- rejection drugs every 12 hours just to stay alive.
Or this. On an otherwise ordinary day your only child is killed in a motor vehicle accident. You must weather the confusion, fear, guilt, anger and loss. The world grinds to a halt as you try to recall every detail of your last interaction with your child. It is your job to make sense from senselessness. You take one more breath and one more step to survive this day and try to comprehend the eternity that follows.
If any of the above stories were yours, how would you cope? How would you fare if life had dealt you such a hand? The fact is, none of the above are stories, they are events from the lives of real people that I have come to know. All of these individuals actively contribute to the rich tapestry that is the community in which I live. The freestyle skier has just won gold and silver in the Sochi Para Olympics. He is a motivational speaker whose brilliant career is the substance of a recent Ted Talk (and video, The Freedom Chair). The businessman has just returned from 14 days of wilderness trekking in the Himalaya. He lives every day in the present moment and takes life as it comes. The child was an organ donor for many others and she lives on as a part of them each and every day. A scholarship for other youth with similar goals and aspirations has been set up in her name so that they may venture where she once did. The parents continue to do the activities they shared with their child, and find comfort and continuity in this. They have established meaningful relationships with her friends and together they keep alive the memories that are the rich legacy of a short life shared.
What all of these extraordinary people have in common is resilience. Psychologists define resilience as the ability to bounce back from hardship and to carry on. It is a priceless commodity, for those individuals who possess it are rich beyond measure while those who do not remain poor in the face of material wealth. Tragedy, accident and disease form a community of souls and at some time or another we will all gain citizenship. How we fare in this new community will largely depend on our individual resilience.
Fortunately, one does not have to be extraordinary to be resilient. Without question it is the ordinary citizen, the one who does not let hardship define them, that I admire most. These individuals are not known beyond their circle of family or friends but they fully participate in life in spite of great odds. Some days in the office I will see in tandem individuals from both ends of the resilience spectrum. I recall a patient suffering from a soft tissue disorder unable to carry out many of the activities of daily life. Their appointment was planned to discuss a long-term disability application, as the patient was unable to work. During the visit I was asked to take a telephone call. On the line was a dentist, seeking medical advice. After answering his questions he informed me he would soon be away for a holiday. He and a friend (who was confined to a wheelchair following a mountain bike accident) were off to kite ski. As I made my way back to the patient’s room, I was shaken by the conundrum before me. Why such a vast difference between how each individual deals with adversity? Why does one individual feel totally disabled by a medical condition while another individual feels a wheelchair is not an impediment to kite skiing? More frightening was the question, Where in the spectrum would I stand if these hardships were mine? The answer of course, depends on the resilience of the individual, and you will never know the answer until it is your turn.
Resilient individuals have the capacity to rise above, even flourish in the life that follows misfortune. If they were the clay of a future vessel, adversity molds them but resilience is the kiln that fires who they become. They come through the fire of hardship transformed, never defeated. They maintain a positive outlook, adapt to crises and move on. Their misfortune does not come to define them but remains a paragraph in the story of their transformation. Such individuals serve as role models for how we would hope to see ourselves under similar circumstances.
Psychologists have found personality traits that correlate to high levels of resilience; a positive attitude, flexibility, an openness to change — what psychologists call an internal locus of control (the ability to affect the outcome of an event by personal action). Resilient people identify more with the survivor role than the victim role. They have strong problem-solving skills and strong interpersonal networks. They are able to seek and accept help. Such individuals experience the setbacks of life as acutely as anyone else; feel stress just as intensely, but they move on to find solutions because, after all, setbacks are part of life and one can always move the goal posts and start again.
Fortunately resilience can be learned and the learning can come from such simple things as setting goals, addressing problems, nurturing and respecting your body, focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses, cultivating and feeding your friendships and realizing that, above all, each of us plays an active part in our destiny.
Understanding a concept such as resilience does not make it so and as a result the question remains How will you do and how will I when misfortune comes to call? Let’s hope we both have high resilience.
Dr. April Sanders is a physician in Vernon, B.C., with Sanders Medican Inc. Vein and Laser.