Wounded but Not Slain

Moving onward and upward even when you feel crushed by life.

Posted May 31, 2018

More than ten years after suffering a stroke that left one side paralyzed, Lolly Vegas, musician, songwriter and co-founder of the Native American rock band Redbone, said in a 2006 interview that he was “wounded but not slain.” Looking at him there was no doubt about it. Lolly Vegas was wounded: one arm lay limp and useless and kept him from playing his guitar and touring with the band. Yet, he said he wasn’t slain. To demonstrate that, he pointed to a large stack of papers noting that he wrote songs every single day. He also painted beautiful, vivid, evocative works—just like his music—only now his paintbrush strummed the canvas as his fingers once did the guitar.

It’s an interesting perspective, being wounded but not slain. 

A natural reaction after experiencing a disappointment, a rejection, a trauma, or an illness is to experience the psychological wound, the hurt. Maybe it’s depression or anxiety; maybe it’s just feeling worn down and not being able to make the effort to get up, never mind moving forward. Maybe it’s tunnel vision: the sense that nothing will change; that this one moment of bad luck has portended all the rest of the lousy cards that life was going to deal your way. 

Yet, people like Lolly Vegas have some ability, some inner fortitude that allows them to move on; to move to something better, to be optimistic. For these individuals, the injury or the trauma awakens not deadens their creative spirit. They aren’t slain by the adverse event.  Psychologists call this "resilience" or the ability to “bounce back.”

However, this is easier said than done.

The truth is that pessimism takes a lot less work. In fact, it’s very little work. It is much easier to turn a deaf ear to all that happy talk: one door opens when another one closes; this too shall pass; it is darkest before the dawn. Excuse me: can’t you see I can’t move my arm? Can’t you see that I lost a leg? Can’t you see that my loved one died? Can’t you understand that I just lost my job, my home, my relationship? Can’t you see how much I am hurting? Stop telling me to be grateful. Stop yapping about being happy. I can’t be happy, there is absolutely nothing to be happy about.

Yet, in that space where bitterness runs through your veins souring every moment and casting a gray patina over every experience, the only way out of that dark hole is an optimistic frame of mind. It is the only way. Otherwise, your wounds fester, they grow and grow until they reach the point when you are slain.  

So how can a person do this impossible thing: to change a mindset from disappointment to expectancy; from resentment to gratitude; from bitterness to hopefulness? Psychologists who study those individuals who bounce back from adversity note some tricks to building resilience:

  • Be aware: of thoughts, emotions, behaviors. Immediately tag them as either productive or counterproductive.
  • Regulate: trim back, eliminate the pessimistic thinking, negative and counterproductive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Expect the best: set your thinking to the optimism channel. What miracles or good breaks happened to you today? It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering: maybe someone on the freeway let you in their lane; maybe the barista made your coffee just right; maybe you decided to smile and a lot of people smiled back. Savor these. Expect life to give you the best.
  • Flex your thinking: be willing to consider new perspectives; try new strategies.
  • Focus on your signature strengths: think about an event or an experience in your life when you felt good about yourself (e.g., the time you encouraged a classmate not to drop out of high school). Savor this—keep these positive memories going as a loop in your mind.
  • Connect with positive others: forget the negative Nellies or Neds. Move toward those who smile, who are energetic, and who energize you.
  • Be grateful for what you have; and most importantly, for what you can give to others.

It really begins with one thought at a time. Replace the negative with the positive, even if you don’t feel like it. It means adopting a firm policy of gratefulness by reviewing all that you have (such as feeling the sunshine on your skin; the ability to walk, to think, to talk, to see). Consider these enormous gifts if you have them all. Be kind to yourself. Remember that all human beings are frail creatures who are prone to make mistakes; forgive yourself and others. Think of ways you can pamper yourself and others—simple things go a long way (e.g., moving that heavy recycle bin to the sidewalk for your elderly neighbor). Then slowly, somehow, after a while, your mood changes. Oddly, your circumstances do too.

The universe seems to pick up on your growing positive energy. Opportunities come your way. Things start to get better. Now you’re rocking and rolling.

References

Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. The American Psychologist, 60, 678-686. doi: 10.1037/0003- 066X.60.7.678

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619. doi: 10.1521/jscp.23.5.603.50748

“Redbone members Lolly Vegas and Iron Joe Interview in 2006.” You Tube, uploaded by Wallabout168, 1 July 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoHGTxidGOA.