Meaning Making and Resilience

I have earlier written about how humans have a deep need to make meaning and how this drives their various decisions and life. Viktor Frankl has written a lot about this Meaning Making process and how it helps or hinders us.

Relating from a personal example. Last year, I went through very painful Gallstone attacks. Gallbladder is a vestigial organ in our digestive system just like Appendix. It’s function is to only store Bile. Our life, well-being and digestion are perfectly fine without it. So when people develop Gallstones allopathy has only one treatment — remove it. People are better without it rather than tolerating the pain! Also, the surgery is not open and is done through laparoscopy and thus there are very limited risks in removal. I was disgusted by the ruthless ‘objectivity’ and ‘pro-surgery’ treatment of all allopathic doctors. Irrespective of the size of stones, their nature, age of patient, their diet, type of pain etc. the only treatment for gallbladder stones from Bangalore to Boston is removal through surgery! There is a major online movement against this group think or myopic way of treatment for capitalistic agenda. I am still part of it at https://www.gallbladderattack.com/

Being a believer in traditional and alternative medicines, I didn’t want to go for surgery. At least not without giving a fair chance to other methods. I researched extensively in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. I contacted various experts and finally started my alternative treatment. It was progressing very well. Subsequent ultrasounds showed reduction in stones by 50–70%.

However there is no remedy for pain in alternative medicines. When a gallbladder attack would come, I would have to tolerate it. Whenever the Gallstones would pass from gallbladder to stomach through Bile duct there would be a gallbladder attack. It is impossible to describe the pain. Just to give an idea, a normal pain killer is 100 mg and I was taking 650 mg painkillers and they would make no difference to my pain. Eventually I was rushed to hospital to get painkiller injections of 2000 mg as they are not given outside supervision. I went to such an emergency visit seven times during the course of my treatment. This is apart from tolerating many such episodes of pain at home where pain would last anytime in between 15 min to 4 hours. I would weep uncontrollably during these gallbladder attacks. My mother was worried about other side effects and was not able to see me in pain. After two months I had to give in and I did finally go for the surgery.

What made me tolerate so much pain when a much easier option was in hand? Was it blind-faith? Everyone can have their own judgements which are very easy to make.

For me, I think it was the meaning I gave to my pain. Being a follower of Vipassana. I would try and observe the sensations of my pain. Pain was a given but suffering and mental agony were optional. I was aware and educated about the nature and type of pain so it was a familiar territory after a couple of times. I was very sure of not taking any risk with my body. I was also constantly connected to all my doctors. This made me more confident in separating pain from suffering. Of course, I would not succeed every time and nor do I suggest this to others.

Whether what I did was correct or wrong is again up for judgement however, after 10+ months of surgery, I believe that this experience of excruciating pain has immensely shaped my spiritual inclination and identity. I had been through other experiences of pain as well (not of so much degree) however this experience stays with me because of the meaning I have chosen to give to it.

I have also spoken to various people who have got their gallbladder removed and even forgotten about it! For them the experience had no meaning. I know patients who want to get their gallbladder removed even for asymptomatic stones. They don’t want to risk any pain. I also know people who recall their gall-bladder pain with agony and disgust.

The same thing happens with us in all subjective experiences. The importance of ‘subjective meaning making’ get stronger for experiences that have physical manifestation and this is where they influence resilience. Resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air.

Apart from resilience, this line of thinking of subjective meaning making has tremendous application in helping us understand our relationships, conflicts, education, etc. much better.

At a larger level, I am also not making a point about empathy or seeing things from others perspectives when talking about subjective realities. That is a subset of what I am telling. My main point is that reality just exists and meaning making is a core human need.

To fulfill this need, we take a small part of reality and make it a separate phenomenon. We assign attributes to this phenomenon. The types of attributes we assign to our experience influence our resilience. People who assign positive and action oriented attributes over negative a passive attributes to their experience are more resilient.

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