A number of years ago, I wrote a book – You’re Stronger Than You Think – which explores the surprising resilience of people with chronic illness and disability. I’ve done a bunch of research on the topic, but in the book I wrote not only about such research, but also about real people, who overcame seriously adverse circumstances.
The book was a disappointment at the box office, but every once in a while I hear back from someone who says the book has had a good impact on their lives. I received one such email recently from Oliver Johnston, a competitive long-distance runner who got into a horrific automobile accident and was told he would never run again. He said the book really resonated with his experience:
“Much of what you wrote chimed closely with my own experiences.”
He talked about the surprising strength many of us find we have within ourselves, when faced with unexpected adversity:
“I have often said to people that while I would not wish my experience and situation on anybody, not everybody has the privilege to test themselves personally in the most terrible of circumstances and learning that they have the strength and power to pass the test, as the case studies in your book likewise so inspirationally did.” And much more importantly, he sent me a link to a video he made about his experience, one he said I was welcome to pass along to all of you. Please check this out – it’s amazing!
He might have liked my book. I loved his video!
It is an awful irony that Ludwig van Beethoven, who I consider the greatest composer in the history of the world, experienced deafness from an early age, a disability that did not seem to interfere with his musical productivity one whit. But it certainly cost him a great deal of suffering, as is quite apparent in this quote:
O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you…. For 6 [sic] years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or perhaps be impossible). Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone…. It was impossible for me to say to people, “Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.” Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection…. For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone like one who has been banished.
Painful to read. A man who already had difficulty interacting with other humans, to be further isolated by deafness, an isolation increased by his embarrassment that his affliction involved the main sense relevant to his art and his livelihood.
I remember one time having a conversation with Daniel Kahneman, one of the founders of behavioral economics, about the topic of happiness and emotional adaptation, in the context of chronic disability. We were discussing emotional impact of experiencing a limb amputation. Kahneman pointed out that it is the loss of the limb that is really important, more so than the absence of the limb. Remember him discussing why he’s not unhappy about lacking a third arm, even though such an arm could be quite useful. His point was it’s hard to miss something you’ve never had.
I just came across a similar sentiment, when reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. Here is his take on the topic:
“If most people could flap their arms and fly, the inability to do so would be a disability. If most people were geniuses, those of moderate intelligence would be disastrously disadvantaged.”
People often show an amazing ability to emotionally recover from difficult circumstances. I devoted my second book, You’re Stronger Than You Think, to this topic. Now comes some really cool research, showing that people’s ability to bounce back from adversity depends, not all that surprisingly, on their underlying personality traits.
Although this result is not unexpected, it is a powerful example of the uncontrollable psychological forces that shape our lives. Unfortunately, when bad things happen to people, not everybody is inherently resilient.
I have done a fair amount of research exploring people’s ability to adapt to a wide range of illnesses and disabilities, too emotionally recover from these difficult circumstances more than the could have imagined. But chronic pain is one of those health conditions that many people find very difficult to adapt to emotionally. One reason may be because it is so hard for other people to empathize or sympathize with what it means to live with chronic pain. I was reminded of that idea when I came across the following quote recently, from Alphonse Daudet, a 19th century French philosopher:
Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him. Everyone will get used to it except me.
Definitely something to keep in mind the next time you encounter someone whose complaints about chronic pain would otherwise have fallen upon deaf ears.
Lance Armstrong cheated and bullied. These are not shocking revelations. Oscar Pistorius had a history of altercations with his girlfriend and is now accused of murder. More shocking, by far, but hardly the first athlete to be accused of such wrong doing.
Should we be so thoroughly shocked to find out the Armstrong and Pistorius are deeply flawed? Remember: the same traits that make people successful as elite athletes—obsessive focus, unrelenting ambition—can also make them rotten human beings.
Yet, we suppressed thoughts of Armstrong ‘s jerkiness because he is a cancer survivor. And we didn’t focus on Pistorius’s previous bad behavior because he is a double amputee. And in this manner, we made our big mistake… (Read more and view comments at Forbes)