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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Christopher Reeve: A "Superman' With ‘Internal Locus’ of Control

In 1954 Julion B Rotter, studying how people’s behavior and attitudes define the outcomes of their lives, came up with the concept of  ‘Locus of Control’.  ‘Locus of control’ defines the degree to which one perceives that outcomes in the life are the result of their own behaviors, or because of the action of forces that are external to him/her. This produces a continuum with external locus at one end and internal locus on the other end.

Normally, people with an ‘internal locus’ of control believe that whatever happens in life, be it good or bad,  is mostly out of their own doing—out of “controllable factors such as one’s attitude, preparation, and effort”. They have strong inclination to believe that they are the ones who are primarily responsible to make or mar their lives. They are at ease in accepting the fact that at times bad things happen for no fault of theirs. They are also quick in attempting to erase or reverse the ‘fallout’ of such bad situations. Similarly, they also accept that sometimes good things just fall in their lap from nowhere. Whenever such things happen they do make the best use of them. They believe that they are the masters of themselves. Such people are easily ‘motivate-able’, for they have an extra layer of fortitude to bounce back from stress and move forward. People driven by ‘internal locus of control’ are usually inquisitive, and tend to work harder, and persevere longer to achieve what they aim at.

One classic example of such tribe who are known to take charge of themselves is Christopher Reeve, the American film actor of the Superman fame of late 70s. In May 1995, he  met with an accident—fell off his horse and broke his neck, and was instantly paralyzed from the neck down—which was a very close call. Had he landed differently, even by a millimeter in one direction, he wouldn’t have been injured. A millimeter the other way and he would have died. He had a 40% chance of surviving his surgery during which his head was literally reattached to his spine.  During surgery he nearly died because of drug reaction.

At that time scientists didn’t yet understand how to regenerate the spinal cord. He was told that he can never again move below his shoulders and there would absolutely be no further improvement. His life expectancy at 42 years of age was said to be at best, six to seven more years. Realizing the gravity of his situation, Reeve wondered to his wife Dana, if “maybe we should just let me go.” But his wife didn’t accept it: “But you’re still you and I love you.” And these words gave him the will to live. He pulled up courage to refuse to accept the scientist’s absolutes and instead said to himself: “… the glass is half full and simply try to go forward”.

He then decided to go to a rehab and “make the absolute best of it.” Challenging himself physically for countless months, he exercised very hard. At the same time he made public appearances inviting more scientists into neurological research to more quickly discover a cure to the injured spinal cord. He created the Christopher Reeve Foundation in 1966 to raise research money and provide grants to local agencies which focus on quality of life for the disabled.   Deciding that people might like to hear his story, he started showing up in public for “the people to gawk at his incapacity”, and share the lessons learned. 

After five years of his injury, he suddenly found he could move his left hand and left index finger. He then ramped up the exercise.  He then could put his foot on someone’s shoulder, bend his knees and push his legs. He could thus prove right the theory of Dr. John McDonald of Washington University which states that if a spinal cord injured patient is put on exercise as soon as possible, it will help in recovery.   That aside, “one of the most important things that Reeve did for many people was… he showed them that there is life after a spinal cord injury or after a stroke…”

In his public appearances he used to say that one of the keys to going ahead and conquering fear—the fear of loss of control—is to ignore one’s moods. The wheel chair-bound screen ‘superman’ used to exhort the injured thus: “Ignore it when you felt you really didn’t want to do whatever you had to do today.”  By staying in the moment regardless of how one actually feels, he says, one would leave oneself open for surprises, on both, a big and a small scale. Of course, being fearless did not guarantee that one gets all one wanted. All that Reeve meant is: “it can satisfy you to know you did something for the world or just for your family”. 

Reeve also found that the key to fearlessness is the phrase “no matter what”. “Keep that in mind”, he advised his audience. He went on saying: “It is truly amazing what we can do by allowing the spirit and mind to flourish. Our capabilities go way beyond our understanding. Get past the clutter, the noise inside you that says, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I’m not good enough, I don’t feel like it, I’m sick, I don’t want to. That is just like a static on a radio”, Reeve asserted. “Just clear the channel, find good reception, and you will be amazed by what you can do.” 

Now the question is: What made Reeve undertake such an arduous journey?  The answer, perhaps, is: his longing to show his fellow quadriplegics that “there is life after a spinal cord injury or after a stroke…one doesn’t have to sit in the dark feeling sorry for oneself.” This is perhaps what Maslow must have had in mind when he said that the behavior of human beings is but an expression of their drive for satisfying their felt needs. There is another important lesson to be learnt from the life of Reeve: People driven by ‘internal locus’ of control have a better chance to live meaningfully.

As against people like Christopher Reeve, there are another set of people who, driven by ‘external locus of control’, primarily believe that life is a series of random-chance occurrences. They believe that things happen mostly because of “uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people or a higher power”. This strategy may sound good so far as a coping technique against failures in life. But such an attitude dissipates the fighting spirit among people. They, accepting the mishap as a fait accompli, tend to remain quadriplegics leading life in utter distress.

Isn’t it clear from the life of Christopher Reeve that we can also cultivate ‘internal locus’ of control? All that we have to do is: recognize the fact that one is always having a choice — a choice to pick a goal and work towards it. Its accomplishment builds up self-confidence. This in turn encourages one to acquire new knowledge and problem solving skills. Building up of competency enables one to take decisions and work towards their successful execution. And success breeds success—the cycle goes on.
-         GRK Murty


Dr.A.Jagadeesh said...

Very inspiring article.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

karpuramanjari said...

Thanks a lot Dr. Jagadeesh garu...

ikram idruss said...

two tumbsup for karpooramanjari

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