Mind Matters — Human Resilience

Life is fragile and in the blink of an eye can change drastically: The resilience of the human spirit, however, is another matter.

Recently, I saw the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which literally is about life lived with only the blink of an eye remaining. The film is based on the memoirs of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had been editor of the very popular French magazine, Elle, until he had a stroke which rendered him completely immobile except for the blink of one eye. With the aid of therapists and caretakers, Jean-Dominique communicated his needs and later his book by blinking his way through their recitations of an alphabet—tediously, laboriously.

We see the world through his sole (or perhaps, more apt, soul) connection to the world—The frustrations: we watch through his eye how an aide shuts off his TV just as the soccer team is about to score; the fears: we witness not only the physician’s intrusions upon his body, but also the pervasive angst of “now what?”; the despair: we want to blink his first words with him, which were “I want to die.” and yet also the joy: we celebrate his ability to experience the beauty around him: observing the attractive women who attend him; watching his children play; appreciating nature when he is wheeled from his hospital bed to the outside.

The diving bell of the title symbolizes for Bauby the sinking isolation of his existence; the butterfly, on the other hand, represents his soaring imagination that flourishes in the midst of his solitary universe.

How did Bauby come to face his brief life after his devastating stroke with such spiritual aliveness? Stories such as his give us an opportunity to reflect on what is missing in our own lives. We witness, for example, Bauby’s regrets about what connections he failed to make with a friend. So we ask ourselves, What are our priorities? What do we wish to change in our lives so that we are more caring and responsive to friends and family?

Despite Bauby’s human shortcomings with friends and family before his stroke, he does appear to have a solid network of connection. Friends and family do support him, visit him. And his caregivers are patient, competent, compassionate (Bauby does not fail to note that the women are also good looking). Weekends, however, when the staff is light, become the most lonely times.

What becomes apparent is that resilience and aliveness of spirit includes connection and social network. Bauby’s imagination allows him to recall loving and pleasurable moments with those close to him. These memories sustain him in his forced solitude. But what also sustains him is the care of the people surrounding him.

Resilience is not about being self-sufficient and not needing support. Bauby depended on many to sustain him. He could connect to his world with a blink of an eye—or not. Perhaps you say, “Well, he had no choice.” Actually he did. He could have chosen the despair and isolation of the diving bell, but instead he elected to live his life in fullness; and he became also the butterfly.

Bauby’s resilience included his retaining his humor. When maintenance men come to his room and make a joke about his condition, a caregiver overhears the comment and rebukes them. Bauby quips to himself that she ought to lighten up—he thought it was funny.

No one wants to have to test their resilience in the way that Bauby’s was. Yet, indeed, many are tested even more. When it comes to life circumstances, each person has their own set of challenges and adversities. We don’t look to Bauby’s story to say, “OK, I could, or could not, live through that.” Instead, we take heart to know that the human spirit is far more resilient than the fragility of the body and our life circumstances.