Saturday, August 09, 2008


First of all, if you have any interest in this topic, I recommend reading anything by Martin E. P. Seligman, especially his book Learned Optimisism. Dr. Seligman was doing research as an up and coming doc in the way back and he had to do experiments that he found distasteful. In fact he found them immoral, and he vowed that if he ever got anywhere he'd never experiment on animals again. What his experiments then led to was the idea of "learned helplessness." Learned helplessness occurs when dogs are tied and shocked with an unpleasant but not damaging shock. After a while the dogs would just lay down in their cages and submit to the inevitable. Then you could take the tops off the cages and the leashes off the dogs, so the dogs could jump out if they wanted, and they wouldn't because they thought they were helpless against the inevitable shock. So they had an escape, but just would lay down and take it. In case you haven't already figured this out, this is what happens to women in abusive relationships, many prisoners of war, and often children who are ritually abused.

Seligman spent a portion of his life focusing on remedies for Learned Helplessness and treatments. Then one day he turned things around and asked, "What are the qualities that resilient people have that make them able to get up one more time than they are knocked down?" He decided he could focus on Learned Optimism. And he's done a bunch of studies and found out a lot of interesting things.

So, how does one come out on the other side of child abuse or cancer or both and still have a positive attitude? Well, that presumes you have a positive attitude first. For those of you that don't know my mother was nuts and ritually abused me on a regular basis. If you're unbelieving for some reason, check my x-rays of my hands. There are over 40 broken bones in my hands. That has led to some interesting life experiences in the sense that I probably try to "control" things too much. Often I think I speak up too much, and other times, I'm too silent. I am uncertain who the real ME is, because I'm basically using "normal" people as a barometer for what I'm supposed to be like, and making an attempt to make myself like them. Of course that doesn't really work well as a life path. I have my demons and I have my flaws, but the likelihood of me being able to exorcise them at this point in my life is pretty dim, so I'm best off shaking hands and making friends with them. I try not to let my nuts-ness out to walk around too often, but it's there.

Now that I've been through the whole treatment for cancer experience, I have other daunting issues that push in on me and make life more interesting; more complex. I have known women during my treatment, that refused to get chemotherapy because they couldn't stand the idea of losing their self-image -- they chose to die prematurely because they couldn't lose their hair. I know women who won't be seen in public with their flat, double-mastectomy chests. I refuse to stop living, so me and my suddenly-so-visible BELLY go and do things like exercise without my prosthetics. (Summer heat and exercise are not compatible with prosthetics in my book.) There have been other medical issues that could have kept me down, but I kept going anyway. My injured left foot had me down for a long time, but after finding a fellow that can do custom orthotics for me, my feet, knees and hips have recovered a lot. I go hiking and walk beaches and do most anything I want to, and can depend on my left foot and leg to hold me up. For a while, that wasn't anything I could envision, but I kept looking for solutions, even when things seemed hopeless. I mean after YEARS of pain and difficulty and surgeries. I hope to crew on the 3-Day Walk and back before orthotics, that wouldn't have been an option.

So what does this have to do with resillience and Learned Optimism? I guess for me it means that while I may be pessimistic about what might come into my life, I have a strong sense that whatever it is, I can find a way through it. I found a way through a difficult, and what was a damaging childhood experience. I found a way through a debilitating injury to my left foot and even though it took years to get to a better place, I kept looking for answers until I found the right ones for me. I don't know yet if this is all that the cancer demon has in store for me. I can tell you that I've taken every possible step I can to ensure that I've done the maximum I can so that it is. However, you and I both know that cancer is sneeky. It may come back. I hope not, but until and unless it does, I'm LIVING. Until I stop breathing, I'm living

This stuff that people say I have called "courage" is nothing more than the need to preserve my Self. You just keep enduring until there isn't anything more to endure. Life is a marathon; a race that goes to the steady runner, not the swiftest. When you get to the other side of the hard part of the journey, you hope like all get-out that there's something good there. For me, the good was being a mom, being a grammy, getting to travel, being an instrument of change at different points in time, helping others know that there is "good" worth getting to the other side for. (Bad grammar, but you know what I mean.)

Plato observed many centuries ago, that it was important to "Be kind to everyone you meet, for they are all in a great struggle." My struggle is no bigger or different than your life struggle, but it's important to hold on and endure because the sweet moments are ever so much sweeter for the struggle. Look forward to the sweet moments, sometimes you are ambushed by what becomes that moment. I didn't expect having a child to be the warm, wonderful experience that it was. I sure didn't expect to fall in love so deeply with grandchildren. Each trip I've taken has had hidden treasures I couldn't have anticipated. And the list of unexpected dividends and sweet reward goes on. I'm sure I have more speedbumps in the road of life ahead of me, but the goal is the sweet joy of the unexpected.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I hope that other people are as inspired by this as I am.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written! As a therapist I consider resilience to be one of five critical global criteria that indicate a likelihood of recovery. Thank you for your journey and your struggle.

Larry V.