Finding Meaning in Suffering: An Eco Psychological Perspective of Disability

Aimee CopelandSo many people in this world suffer every day, whether it is due to loss or lack of something or simply discontentedness. Medical problems may pile up — along with medical bills — as we grow and age. People grow apart. Disasters happen. How do we deal with these painful events of life, which we often cannot control?

As human beings, as long as we have choice, we are not solely at the whim of random occurrences. Even in the worst of circumstance, we have the ability to choose how to bear our burdens. After contracting a near-fatal case of necrotizing fasciitis in the summer of 2012, after falling from a zip line, my own faith was tested. Waking up in a hospital with tubes protruding from every orifice and then some, day after day I had to be told where I was and what had happened to me. After several weeks of asking the same questions, the answers finally registered to my conscious mind, despite the drugs that kept me in a dazed, forgetful state. My left leg had been removed at the hip. My hands and right foot would have to go too. I remember thinking that this was now my situation, and that was that.

I recalled Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and knew that this could be a great opportunity. People around me were sobbing but I knew I had to fight for life. In that moment, I had chosen to accept my fate and make something out of it. I did not yet know what, but I remembered my loved ones and I remembered my studies, and for me that was enough.

When I was moved to a spinal cord center, I encountered men and women of all ages who had recently become paralyzed. This certainly put my life into perspective, as suffering is relative. When I saw a boy no older than twenty using a straw to operate his wheelchair, my heart nearly burst. Here I was, thinking I was suffering, and this boy could only move his face. As we became friends I quickly realized that although Mike’s level of injury was more serious than anyone else’s, he was definitely not the worse off. When discussing his spirituality he was overcome with passion, and the light that shone in his eyes was brighter than fire. There were others who still had use of their upper body who laid in bed all day, coming out only for required therapy. These individuals seemed to be lost in meaninglessness, seeing no point to their existence. Many of these patients had no support system, and I imagine had not found meaning in life before their injury. Chris fell in this category, having wrecked his motorcycle while high on meth. I still talk to Chris, who still spends his days lying in bed. His view that he has no purpose has paralyzed him more than the accident. Mike, on the other hand, has gotten his disabled scuba divers certification, and was planning a hang gliding trip when we last met. I can still see the light in his eyes.

Exceptionally trying situations give us the opportunity to grow spiritually deeper than we could without them. These are the tests, poking and prodding, asking if we are really joyful or if our happiness is based solely on circumstance. Will we fold in apathy, choose to give up, or let the game unfold, playing with courage and dignity until the very end? If we choose the latter, we choose meaning. For in our suffering, despite how pointless it may seem, we have maintained the inner freedom to stay true to the self. By adopting this perspective we can progress and accomplish many things– not in spite of our burdens, but because of them. For years I prayed for clarity, for the opportunity to awaken. Here and now, I refuse to allow this chance to go to waste. My suffering has many purposes, and thus my suffering has ceased. It is not entirely gone, but has been transformed into something else– it has become space in my life, a soapbox to stand on, a word of encouragement, an act of compassion, and a shoulder to cry on.

It was soon after I regained consciousness that the purpose of my injury became clear. I must take a step back to show how this understanding developed. Prior to my injury I had been studying a unique field known as Eco psychology. According to this perspective the human psyche is embedded in nature, and thus being immersed in the wilderness allows us to tap into our higher selves and undergo amazing healing and growth. Because my most spiritual encounters had occurred in the wild, I immediately understood how spending prolonged amounts of time in the woods might lead to incredible transformation. When I camped for more than a week I would start to notice a change in my habits. I felt more in my body; more focused, greater energy, heightened curiosity, yet at the same time a sense of understanding. The negative self-talk reinforced by a consumer driven world began to dissipate. The layers hiding my true self began to fall away. No one had to say a thing. It just happened.

Encountering the living world reminds us that we are an aspect of it, just like the trees and sand dunes and cicadas. This reminder is a distant memory to many, who see mankind as the perfect specimen destined to rule over all of nature. However, spending time away from the day-to-day grind, in the thick forest where day and night cycle like the ocean waves, you see that we, too, are subject to the ways of nature. Although these ways may seem random and meaningless, there is actually a great deal of order and symmetry in nature. We simply must be aware, open to the experience, and contemplative.

Before my injury I recognized this field to be my calling, but wasn’t sure who I wanted to work with. Troubled youths? Alcoholics? I did not feel particularly drawn to either. When I started rehab, however, I began to realize how much my isolation from nature was starting to affect me. I now relied on electricity to power my wheelchair and prosthetics, and could no longer manage the difficult terrain of the wilderness. Others around me also felt alienated from the outdoors, spending all their time instead watching television. It struck me that I was meant to use my experience to bring Eco therapy to the amputee and wheelchair communities. These are the folks that really need to reconnect with the land in order to uncover the meaning of their suffering. It is also these individuals who have given meaning to my suffering. If my accident allows me the rare opportunity to reach others with disabilities, it seems a worthwhile sacrifice to me.

I still have much to learn on my journey before I can best serve the world. It is my mission to discover how to keep the wilderness wild while allowing people with disabilities to safely explore their home and their selves. For me, this necrotizing fasciitis experience has been less a tragedy and more a romance– about a girl’s love affair with the world. By spreading that love and light I am able to fulfill myself more than ever before. I was never meant for an ordinary, boring life. And let me assure you, my life is never dull.

Aimee Copeland

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