Have you ever seen a circus elephant standing serenely, tied to a little peg in the ground? 

How does that work? 

I mean, elephants can grow to be over a ton. 

Why does an elephant just stand there? Why doesn’t this creature, one of the most powerful animals in the world, just rip the peg out of the ground and go on its merry way? Who could stop it?

The way I understand it, they are trained from a very young age to behave that way. When an elephant is very young, it is tethered to a huge stake in the ground. The baby elephant may try to get free but the stake is too firmly planted so the elephant just gives up. After a while, the size of the stakes can be decreased to the point where a tent peg can hold an elephant in place, and since their experience is that the stake can’t be moved, they don’t even try to free themselves any more.

So what does this have to do with people?

Well, people behave the same way those elephants do. 

At least they do in a kind of metaphorical way.

This can happen, much too often, when we try to accomplish something and run into roadblocks and barriers. If we can’t overcome it, we give up trying. It happens to us all. We stop trying because it hasn’t worked before.

Brain injury survivors aren’t exempt from this.

In the early stages of a severe enough brain injury, we can experience feeling helpless. When we try to do things we could easily do before the injury and can’t do it any more, we give up trying, and too often we give up too early.

Thinking we can’t do it is a metaphoric tent peg that keeps us from persisting, so we feel that early attempts and failures mean we will never be able to accomplish that goal.

But failure is only failure when we give up trying. 

We should instead view failure as a motivation to try a different approach to the problem. Failure just means we haven’t solved the problem yet and that we just need to keep trying.Elephant in the jungle, raising it's trunk

Having a traumatic brain injury can feel like a life sentence, but it most surely isn’t a death sentence. To live is to keep on trying, no matter how big the challenge.

Sometimes there are problems we create for ourselves. 

When we are very young and don’t know our way around, we are forced to discover ways to cope. I think a good example is the way a baby cries when it wants/needs something. A baby doesn’t have the knowledge of articulating its wants or needs but it does notice that crying is a way to get attention. Crying is just one example; as the child matures it learns other ways to get what it wants.

And these ways work until they don’t, but they have a long shelf life because they worked in the past. We hold on without consciously realizing they don’t work any more, and wonder why we don’t get the result we want. 

To get back to the crying baby thing, some people get such great results from crying, they continue that kind of behavior into adulthood. By then it doesn’t serve any useful purpose, and in fact, it’s viewed as a negative quality for someone past toddler age to exhibit. As we grow, the attention-getting crying can turn into whining or complaining, and be viewed by others as off-putting and can make people keep their distance; the opposite of what happened when we are babies and toddlers. 

Eventually, we hopefully learn constructive, positive and beneficial behaviors but too often we don’t.

And we wonder why we are stuck, repeating a cycle that never seems to end. We need to understand what lies beneath our behaviors and modify them as needed. We need to recognize and understand that behaviors need to constantly change and adapt to new circumstances, and work on ourselves to make those changes accordingly.

We are not tied to the past, and we need to focus on creating our own futures. That process begins in the present—right now, today. 

Like an elephant held in place by a tent peg, we need to keep testing the limit of our strength and free ourselves. We need to recognize our own strength and use it to make the kinds of changes that make our lives happier and more productive.

Isaac Peterson grew up on an Air Force base near  Cheyenne, Wyoming. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he embarked on a career as an award-winning investigative journalist and as a semi-professional musician in the Twin Cities, the place he called home on and off for 35 years. He doesn’t mind it at all if someone offers to pick up his restaurant tab and, also, welcomes reader comments. Email him at isaac3rd@gmail.com. Read more articles by Isaac here; https://www.brainenergysupportteam.org/archives/tag/isaac-peterson

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