Solutions
Re-engaging Life and Finding Purpose After Disability or Illness
 
Re-engaging Life and Finding Purpose After Disability or Illness Gwen has multiple sclerosis, John lost his leg in combat, Terrell is almost blind and Chris has cancer.
 

In spite of losing physical health and some of their physical abilities, Gwen, John, Terrell and Chris have plenty in common: They have remained in the game emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Not in the larger-than-life heroic sense, but in the daily grind of life, work and family.

Why do some people seemingly drop out of life when disability strikes and others reinvent themselves, find purpose and re-engage? There are no clear-cut reasons but research has provided a glimpse into the characteristics of people who prosper in spite of their disability.

Eight characteristics of re-engagers

  1. Accept the truth: They do not spend much time asking “why” they became sick or sustained a disability. Rather, they express their anger and grieve their loss and, then, accept the reality of today.
  2. Know who they are: They learn to know, really know, that their disability does not change who they are or diminish all the good things about them. Before he died of cancer in 1993, North Carolina State head basketball coach Jimmy Valvano stated that cancer could take his body but it could never take his mind or his spirit. Jimmy Valvano refused to let his illness define him.
  3. Persevere: They develop the drive and ability to push ahead and persevere even when they don’t feel like it. Individuals who persevere almost always succeed in what they set out to accomplish. Like Jimmy Valvano, re-engagers learn to persevere in spite of obstacles and setbacks.
  4. Take initiative, take risks: Re-engagers are willing to take risks and try new ways of doing things instead of lamenting their limitations. Trying something radically different is hard for most people but especially so for people with physical limitations. In 1955 Jill Kinmont was a champion skier bound for the Olympics when she broke her neck in a tragic accident. Depressed and angry she scoffed at the suggestion that a quadriplegic could go back to college—but she took a chance and did go to college. In spite of countless obstacles, she earned her degree from UCLA and enjoyed a rewarding career as a schoolteacher.
  5. Become resourceful: Re-engagers use their imagination and creativity to solve problems and overcome obstacles. When legendary jockey Red Pollard shattered his leg, the doctors told him that he would never ride again because his leg could not withstand the stress. A determined Red Pollard fashioned a brace from wood and leather that supported his lower leg while riding. The doctors were amazed at his ingenuity. Soon thereafter, Red Pollard rode Sea Biscuit to his final victory in the Santa Anita Sweepstakes.
  6. Discover or renew a purpose for their life: Purpose is the belief that what you do in life matters. Re-engagers who find, or renew, a purpose for their lives frequently comment that they are grateful for their illness or disability. Why? Because it led them to discover a purpose for life that they had never experienced.
  7. Find joy and gratitude: Those who have been seriously ill or injured understand better than most that life is a fragile and unpredictable thing. Joy is not the absence of pain or unhappiness. Rather, it is found amid the daily drudgery of everyday life. Re-engagers discover incredible joy in small seemingly unimportant things, such as the feel of the cool autumn air or children’s laughter. Gratitude for what they have supplants the grief over what they have lost.
  8. Find hope and faith: In his book The Vital Balance, the late psychiatrist and author Karl Menninger, founder of the world-renowned Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, wrote:

    “It is our duty as physicians to estimate probabilities and to discipline expectations. But leading away from probabilities there are paths of possibility, toward which it is also our duty to hold aloft a light. And the name of that light is hope.”

    Re-engagers embrace the light of hope in spite of the evidence of their present circumstances. For many, it is their faith in others, or faith in the character of a higher power that gives hope—and no matter how dark the night, hope always welcomes tomorrow.

By Drew Edwards, EdD, MS
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