Coming Back

At some point we all find ourselves in a place that forces us to change our perspectives and view life through a new lens.  Sometimes this transformation is sudden, as in the case of an accident, illness or loss of something or someone important to us.  In other examples the change is more gradual, such as the process of aging or accepting chronic conditions that may never completely disappear.  We find ourselves faced with “the new normal”.  Despite the fact that everything in life is always changing, most of us are wary or even downright afraid of what is unknown.  This causes us to cling to the familiar even if we are not completely happy with it.  We’ve all heard the expression, “the devil you know . . .” which is often used as a rationale for avoiding change.

We each have different ways of handling change.  Some of us resist the reality of change by resorting to denial.  We might think, “This isn’t really happening.  I will just keep on moving through life in the same way that I always have.” Others get angry and look for someone or something external to blame, as in “if it wasn’t for _____  (fill in the blank) everything would still be the same as it used to be.”  That may or may not be true, but unfortunately, it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.  Others despair, focusing on the loss rather than anything positive that remains and sometimes find themselves dissolving into depression.  Some consider themselves victims and wonder “why me?” Still others will accept the new normal and try to make the best of it.

It has long been a question among social scientists as to why some people can move through changes with relative equanimity, while others resist sometimes to the point of sacrificing their own health and well-being.  Most agree that the quality that sets the victims apart from the survivors is resilience.  The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.  .  . It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”  Furthermore, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” So this is not some innate quality that is part of our DNA, it is something that we can all develop.  It just takes practice.

No one escapes hardship in life.  We may think there are people who have it all together.  But deeper inspection often reveals hidden truths. Many years ago when I was dealing with a  particular set of changes in my life I met a woman who captured my admiration.  I thought, “If I could only be like her all my problems would be solved.”  Later I learned that beneath the appearance of perfection there was a deeply troubled sole who had a host of characteristics I was so grateful I didn’t have.  It was a simple but major lesson for me – nobody’s perfect.   Whatever someone else has that you think you want often accompanies many things that you’re better off without.

Getting back to resilience, I used to teach a class to prospective entrepreneurs about how to build a viable business.  It turns out resilience is also a key to successful entrepreneurship.  One might think that having lots of money is an important factor.  And, yes, having sufficient resources to survive good and bad times is necessary, especially during the start-up phase which often lasts several years.  Also important is a complete understanding of market conditions.  But being able make it through tough times and respond to changes as they become evident without clinging to some ideal image of the way things “should” be is right up there at the top of the list.  Followers of this blog might recognize this characteristic as something we cultivate in yoga and Pilates – namely, flexibility – being able to go with the flow without breaking.

So what does all this have to do with coming back?   That title could refer to many things, but, as you might have guessed, I am referring in particular to coming back from illness, injury or other forms of loss.  By loss I mean those related to changes in our ability to do the same things we’ve always done in the way we used to do them.  It also might mean loss of the illusion that we will ever be able to be like that other person who looks a certain way or who can do certain things that are unavailable to us in this moment.  In particular, each physical set-back I have reminds me of my limitations.  Regardless of how I feel or how I view myself, I am not the same person physically that I was 20 years ago.  This is not bad or good.  It just is what it is.  Knowing that, I can choose to lament the fact that I will probably never again run a marathon, or I can find joy in the fact that I can still hike in our beautiful outdoors on legs that not only work but are mostly pain-free.  So certain human frailties may be revealed, but also amazing strength.  I’ve had set-backs, but I’m still here and still moving.  How incredible is that!  Some days may be slower than others but that’s OK.  It is wonderfully liberating not to have to live up to anyone else’s standards.  Also I can still practice yoga and Pilates, both of which have contributed greatly to my physical capacity.  These are all disciplines that can be modified to meet my needs.  Some days I can do poses that are difficult on other days.  There is no rule that says I have to power through the difficult moves when they are not working for me.  I can modify or even skip them altogether and try again tomorrow.

Change may be constant, but sometimes it can’t be forced.  When you can’t change a situation, you can always change your attitude.  Here is a link to another article on “How to Build Resilience”.  The suggestion is given to “Reframe Your Interpretation”.  This is another way of saying find a different point of view.  Remember the old song that advised “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”?  You could almost use that for a mantra.  No matter how bad things seem, there is always something positive that is still available if you look for it. Even if it’s something really small, it’s worth focusing on until something better becomes visible. This isn’t necessarily easy and it won’t change reality, but it might help you get through it.  You may be losing something precious, but I would venture a guess that meaningful things in your life still exist.  Just like physical activity, this requires practice.  It may take many reminders throughout the day, but as neuroscientists are increasingly learning, we can create new pathways in our brains at any age.

So even if you think you have always been a certain way and can’t possibly change, train yourself to think as my favorite astrologer/philosopher Caroline Casey advises and add the words “until now!”.  You can change.  You just need to practice.  Accept what is and focus on what you can do right now. If it gets better, great!  If not, it’s still worthy of celebration.

Celebrating Sameness

We all began as children

This morning I listened again to one of my favorite podcasts:  “The Biology of Spirit“, an interview with Dr. Sherwin Nuland from the weekly radio program “On Being“.  I could easily fill this space with inspirational nuggets from this talk, but there were a few ideas that are particularly relevant to the kinds of topics we discuss in this blog.  For example, Dr. Nuland talks about some of the things that are universal among all human beings.  First, there is the biology. We are each constructed of approximately 75 trillion cells. Each one of those cells experiences an estimated 4 million cell divisions per minute.  Since it’s “impossible for the DNA to replicate perfectly each time, little mistakes are made.” That’s where the DNA repair molecule comes into play.  “It travels like a little motorboat up and down the DNA molecule. It finds errors, snips them out, corrects them, and puts the right thing back in there. This is the ultimate wisdom of the body.”   Think about that for a moment.  It’s quite a concept. All of this is happening without our even noticing and most of the time dangers are thwarted and equilibrium is restored.  The human body is truly amazing!  We abuse it in so many ways and yet it still works so hard for us. So often we tend to focus on its shortcomings when we should be marvelling at how much it does right.

Having spent his professional career dealing with ways in which things go wrong, Dr. Nuland has developed “an enormously healthy respect for normal”.  He describes what it’s like to be “in surgery and you look inside an abdomen and realize how many things could go haywire and they don’t. . .  everything is just humming along beautifully, nobody is running it.”  How incredibly miraculous!  And this is true of all of us – regardless of race, religion, country of birth, political views, background, what we look like to each other – whatever differences you can think of, these are ways in which we are all the same.

It’s not just physical.  Dr. Nuland also reminds us that “pain and response to pain is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. . . .It teaches you a sort of understanding.”  Recently I was talking with my family doctor about how my own pain has given me a new understanding of what it’s like for other people in similar circumstances.  We may not want to think about negative emotions or sensations like pain, or sorrow, or even guilt or embarrassment but it can be comforting to recognize that these are universal experiences. The fact is we all – yes, all! – feel these things at one time or another. Fear of people who seem different from us may lead us to make judgments. We think that such a person doesn’t have feelings like we do. Or perhaps that person doesn’t care about the same things we do. But chances are if we really got to know that other person, we would find that their fears and concerns are similar to our own and in the end they want the same things we do.  It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from or what you believe, we all want to feel secure, take care of our families, have a safe place to live and enough to eat.  These are universal qualities.

Similarly, we often feel as though our own suffering is unique. It tends to keep us isolated. We become reluctant to make our feelings known for fear that we will be rejected by others as somehow deficient. But one of the eternal truths of life is that everyone suffers in one way or another. The epigraph, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” is mentioned during this interview.  When we take that dangerous leap of bridging the gulf of fear that separates us, we learn that everyone has a story and no one escapes its scars. It can be comforting to realize that no matter what we experience, there are billions of others who are or have experienced the same thing.  Dr. Nuland says, “You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word? Everybody needs to be understood.”

As human beings, Dr. Nuland theorizes, with the capacity to process information in a unique way we seem to have an “awareness of the closeness of chaos”.  He thinks this is partially because of the complexity of the biological processes that are constantly occurring within every one of our cells. But it also could be related to our awareness of our own fragility. Despite our unwillingness as a society to address the finite nature of our existence, we are reminded daily that nothing lasts forever. Still all of our biological processes are geared towards detecting and attempting to eradicate threats to survival. In fact, even the ancient Greek philosophers “without knowing anything about cells or anything about how the body really worked, [understood that] we live in chaos and seek the reassurance of stability.”  We all seek harmony, order, and integrity as well as unity and predictability. Predictability is elusive, though, so most of us construct a series of habits, routines and patterns that make up a comfort zone.  This can become so familiar that we find it difficult to let go even when change might be in our best interests. As uncomfortable as pain or obsessional thoughts might be they are the devil we know.  Dr. Nuland puts it this way: “They represent a sort of comfortable familiar thing that I could come back to. It’s almost as if they represented family. And it’s hard to give those things up.” Part of that is fear of the unknown. If I let go of this feeling, what will replace it? Change also means loss.  Maybe its something we’re better off without, but we don’t know that until we get to the other side. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the other side will be OK.

At times of change, we would all do well to remember all of the times in the past that we have weathered a change that forced us out of our comfort zone.  Everyone reading this can probably think of a time in their lives when this has happened. In most cases the change has at the very least been a learning experience, but also it has probably brought about unexpected results which never could have been anticipated ahead of time.  I know this is true for me.

So if you’re contemplating making a change in your life, or if a change is being forced upon you due to circumstances beyond your control, it might help to remind yourself that there are many other people who are now or have experienced the same thing you are going through. Dr. Nuland says, “The brain has a way of evaluating what is best for the organism.” Although we as humans sometimes ignore what we know is best and manage to rationalize choosing another direction, we also know that “when we choose what is best for the organism, it will usually make us feel really good.” It might also help to remember that no matter what is changing there are a zillion other people faced with the same choices and experiencing the same dilemmas as you. Try remembering that each person you see has the same 75 trillion cells that you do and each one of them is engaged in the process of survival just like you.  We are all part of the big club of human beings.  There is comfort in belonging.