21 May 2012

Meaning in life following adversity: Melanie Phillips on star-gazing


Searching for meaning in life is what humans do. How we are able to have that happen depends on the experiences life sends our way, how we process those experiences, what we attempt to do with them, and the resources and support we bring to the effort or that come our way. Journalist Melanie Phillips has written an article about the lessons that life gives us and how we can make meaning out of adversity if we are only determined enough to overcome it and rebuild our lives. She includes the stories of two Brits, Claire Lomas and Tina Nash, but I suggest that she has done so in a manner that is demeaning towards many other survivors of adversity, and perhaps towards the two couples she is writing about, as their circumstances are so very different.

Claire Lomas was paralyzed from the chest down after being thrown from her horse in 2007. Tina Nash was beaten and blinded in an attack by her boyfriend in 2011.

Ex-boyfriends and motherhood

In ‘The lesson we can all learn,’ about Claire Lomas and Tina Nash, Melanie Phillips seems to be drawing a comparison between their boyfriends. Her telling of the stories of the two women, both of whom were let down by the man in their life, implies that the men’s intentions were similar, and that the consequences of their actions were the same for both – devastation followed by a much-deserved new life without them. About Claire’s former boyfriend she writes:

“After enduring the devastating impact of a boyfriend who had failed to support her when she needed him most after her accident, she married a man who did care for her — as a result of which she managed to gave birth to a baby daughter " (The lesson we can all learn, 2012).

Phillips writes more on the subject of Claire and motherhood:

“Ms Lomas says her life is better in so many ways than before her accident because she now has her husband and child. This ability to find something positive even in such personal catastrophe is nothing less than a profound affirmation of life itself” (The lesson we can all learn, 2012).

Yet clearly Claire and her previous boyfriend had a certain kind of life in mind when they moved into the farmhouse three years before the accident, one that didn’t involve motherhood. From another article in the Mail (The REAL reason, 2012) , it sounds as though Claire wasn’t ready to settle down and become a mother at the time the accident occurred. On the contrary, she was deeply involved in living her independent life, working as a chiropractor and following her horse pursuits. Sadie Nicholas writes:

“She began riding as a toddler, eventually qualifying as a four-star equestrian eventer; the highest status possible and the same level as Zara Phillips. Only the most accomplished riders achieve this. So devoted was Claire to her horses that she spent the majority of her chiropractor’s salary on them, sacrificing holidays to do so” (Real reason, 2012).

Thus, Melanie Phillips’s article goes beyond the pale in criticizing the live-in boyfriend Claire had before the accident, for leaving her at this most vulnerable time in her life when she was thrown from her horse and paralyzed. Going back to the farmhouse afterwards wouldn't have been an option for Claire, as she needed care and support he couldn't provide. Instead, she went to her parents’ home. Five years later, Claire demonstrated the ‘bionic’ robot suit in the London Marathon, 2012, over a period of 16 days.

What Phillips doesn’t seem to recognize is that it wasn't only Claire’s life that was thrown into turmoil – her ex’s was too. I assume he had a job he had to go to, and not as a research scientist with access to resources, and knowledge about what to expect and how to cope. Claire was no longer able to fulfil the expectations (unspoken or otherwise) of the relationship, and neither could he. When something like that happens it is devastating to all concerned, as life has to begin anew, with different goals, often with different friends and relationships.

Tina’s story is horrific, though nothing about her life before that day has been told, except that she had two children, one a teenager, the other a toddler. The attack was committed by her boyfriend, leaving her with injuries and worse yet, blind.

Sometimes women experience such immense tragedies that they are held up as examples to the world of the suffering women endure at the hands of men. Likewise, men capable of such deeds are held up as examples also. Tina Nash is one such woman, while her now ex-boyfriend, Shane Jenkin, is one such man (see Blinded woman, 2012). Their story is entirely different than Claire Lomas’s and her ex-boyfriend, Claire’s paralysis being the result of an accident, not a physical attack.

Tina’s experience of having to endure the emotional scars of a physical attack by someone she was in a relationship with, as well as the resulting blindness, places her experience well within the categories of domestic violence and ‘violence against women.’ This makes her an ideal advocate for these causes (Blinded woman, 2012), and the ex-boyfriend, Shane Jenkins, a perfect example of the kind of violence that concerns feminists most – the kind that is directed by the man towards someone with whom he was in an intimate relationship. Moreover, the violence was not vaguely directed towards women in general, and Jenkins was not distanced from it by using a rifle.

In Canada, the man feminists most love to hate for his violence is Marc Lépine, remembered for having shot and killed 14 women at the Polytechnique in Montreal on Dec 6, 1989, though his passion had been over feminists taking over careers and places in education traditionally held for men, not a relationship gone sour (see ‘Montreal Massacre 1989 – 2009’, 2009.) Lépine died at the scene of the killings, but Shane Jenkins, at his trial, admitted to the crime of ‘grievous bodily harm with intent,’ was given a life sentence, and sent to a secure psychiatric unit for treatment (see Blinded woman, 2012).


Phillips writes, "For those of us immersed in the raucous arena of politics and public affairs, these two stories [Claire and Tina] surely provided a most salutary counterpoint. It was like looking at the world through the other end of a telescope. Suddenly, that shallow and venal public world shrank into relative insignificance, and the people in it and all their activities seemed puny and irrelevant.”

On the other hand, Claire and Tina had themselves suddenly been cast into the world of politics and public affairs - not necessarily a bad thing, as public support was what they needed if their favourite charities and their lives were to move forward. Being in the public eye and rewarded by it was no less a concern for them at this time than it would have been for Phillips, in her job as journalist.

It’s an error of perspective to view Tina and Claire as somehow being in the ‘real world’ of ordinary life and its practical problems (although at the same time, unique in their ability to deal with adversity), whereas Ms Phillips’s life was only about politics, policies, and theory. It’s hardly an accurate depiction of the way these stories have affected England and the world. Claire and Tina being struck by adversity had an effect on the public, but not due to their being more real, or down-to-earth than most others, or their facing practical problems in an exceptional manner due to personal attributes. For the most part, that has been an image of their lives constructed by their supporters and the media.

Although the women are unique in some ways they aren’t the only people in the world who have had to seek ways of dealing with adversity and find new meaning in their lives. It’s an everyday phenomenon, despite the way Phillips talks about it. There’s no real reason to raise the two to such an elevated status.

Inspirational role models or celebrity-gazing?

“This, instead, is surely what really matters — how we all live our lives, how we cope with the bad times as well as the good, whether we can all similarly find within ourselves such strength of character to overcome the most shattering adversity” (Phillips, The lesson we can all learn, 2012).

I question whether holding up such examples of adversity is the way to give such advice to the general public. In fact, I question whether most people need it (see comments on ‘A life with purpose lasts longer,' 2009).

Phillips writes that “Claire Lomas and Tina Nash . . . are determined instead to be not life’s losers but its winners. Their example is inspiring because they tell us what human nature is capable of achieving — and, therefore, what we, too, might achieve.”

I’m not certain that the stories of these two women can inform us of the heights to which “human nature” can be elevated. Surely, the right circumstances are necessary if this is to happen – the right social, economic, and political environment, as well as the strength of character and commitment of the women. Phillips is making these scenarios appear individualistic – as though the women achieved what they have through their own effort alone.

The conclusion Phillips makes, “therefore, what we, too, might achieve” doesn’t apply unless the person is able to access resources the same way these women could. Sometimes, circumstances fall into place – the right time, the right place, the support one needs. At other times, it’s not there, making it more a matter of luck than individual effort.

One can see how Tina Nash could herself become a valuable resource in the fight against domestic violence, and why she would want this as a goal in her life. Furthermore, one can see why Claire Lomas was just the right person to promote the robot suit and the charity for spinal cord research, and why she would want to work towards raising money for spinal cord research. They are assets for the cause, and their involvement provides them with purpose in their lives, and gives meaning to the adversity they endured. While that is to be applauded, suggesting that the women represent the highest form of human nature, as Phillips does, is an exaggeration or even a misapplication of the term.

But is their example inspiring to most other people, as Ms Phillips suggests? Speaking for myself, I’m not inspired by them in the way that Phillips suggests – “because they tell us what human nature is capable of achieving — and, therefore, what we, too, might achieve.” Of course, just as Phillips herself has been inspired to write about the two women, so have I been inspired to write this in response. Inspiration works in strange ways.

For some readers and onlookers, hearing about either of these two women may have emphasized their own struggles and provided inspiration because of that feeling of shared connection. In fact, Claire herself has said that the person who has impressed her most of all the celebrities who have given their support has been Matt Hampson, paralyzed on the rugby field (Claire Lomas: Matt Hampson, 2012). The mutual interest in sports and helping other young people injured at sports, and the injury itself, would be things they have in common.

For other readers, celebrity-gazing may have been the main aim.  If admirers of Claire and Tina are looking only at how each has dealt with adversity, yet have no personal understanding of it, or empathy, then it comes across more as hero worship or celebrity-gazing than any real source of inspiration for themselves, in dealing with adversity in their own lives.

Being close to or feeling a connection to a star where there is none may still provide them with a sense of meaning, being able to show support in some way. We don’t all get the opportunity to engage in activities that shower us with rewards, but providing support to those who already have a great deal can make us feel a part of the total effort – a social connection, and more than that – a connection to someone who has power and whose capabilities knows no bounds.


There is more that I feel inspired to respond to in this piece by Melanie Phillips, who makes a point of announcing the two women’s achievements by admonishing the experience of ordinary people, saying, “In our sentimentalised culture where so many rush to label themselves victims in order to gain some advantage . . .” .

Phillips isn’t clear about who or what groups in society she is complaining about in this sentence, but it appears to be about other people who have suffered adversity, or perhaps those who have not suffered adversity but simply claim they have, “in order to gain some advantage.”

It’s out of necessity that some people in society have to declare themselves as unable to work, or unable to walk, or name some other disease so that they may claim state benefits so they can survive, though placing a label on their condition is not the same as being a victim. But if they don’t manage to acquire enough to enable them to move forward in their lives, then are they victims? (see Tanni Grey-Thompson warns, 2012)

Some may even claim benefits for what appears to be no good reason, but surely, that’s not who I’m writing about here. And of those who do have purpose, not all of them will have the right capabilities or get the opportunity to learn to use a robot suit or buy one for their own use. Nor will all women’s bad experiences in their marriages be severe enough to lead them to be welcomed as spokespersons for the cause.

Phillips appears to be taking the viewpoint that possibly, some people don’t need the state’s help, but are simply lazy (or as others have labeled them, ‘couch potatoes’), and if they only tried harder, or looked for appropriate work, or ran a marathon, they too would receive favourable publicity enabling them and their charity to celebrate their changed fortune.

In almost every article written about Claire Lomas, someone has commented on her determination and bravery, whereby the social support she has received has been seen as a result of her determination – as ‘deserved’ – not as a cause of it. More likely, the determination and social support are an evolving process, each leading to the other, resulting in the cause growing larger and stronger, and her determination also growing. Social support is known to have that effect.  Claire used the bionic suit in to participate in the London marathon, setting her apart from others in the marathon and those who had previously tried it out (see Britain’s bionic man, 2012; Robot Suit Helps Paraplegic, 2011).

Others may be left to struggle with their illness or following tragedy of some sort, with no social support. So who is it really, that are the “sentimentalised” in our culture – people who are left struggling to survive adversity, or the ordinary people and the media, such as Melanie Phillips, who make a point of idealizing people in the public eye? Claire has found purpose in her life, in part at least, wearing the robotic suit, with more support than most people can only imagine in their own lives.

Epiphany or gradual realization: living life with a different purpose

Perhaps Claire experienced an epiphany, discovering through the accident that it was family that mattered most – a loving husband and especially, having a child of her own – affirmation of life itself. Or could it have been the chance to have a robotic suit that was the epiphany?

Rather than always look towards others for inspiration, it makes as much sense or even more for people to look inwardly, towards their own bodies and lives for the inspiration that comes from that. For both Claire Lomas and Tina Nash, their own lives are the source of their inspiration, though granted, each had experienced a crisis situation.

When I read about Claire and Tina, I don’t feel inspired by what they have gone through or how they are reinventing themselves. The reality for me is that, those times I have been inspired by someone’s actions, by how they found purpose in their own life, I have ended up feeling only disappointment. No matter how hard I try, or how much of myself I put into it, the fact is that it’s virtually impossible to achieve as much as the original achievement, or the person behind it that I had admired.


Ms Phillips tells us how we can make meaning out of adversity if we are only determined enough to overcome it and rebuild our lives. This kind of psychologizing can leave people with a sense of defeat if their efforts show few or no good results. An epiphany is an epiphany only in retrospect. Otherwise, it’s just a dream. Not taking no for an answer only works if someone else is there to say yes. No one lives completely alone and independently in society.

It is generous of Melanie Phillips to devote her skills and time to honour these women, but is this the best response to their circumstances, raising them up to the level of celebrities, examples of humanity extraordinaire? Can women who are abused to a lesser extent see themselves in Tina’s place, or was her experience so horrendous that others can only marvel at her fortitude and be thankful it didn’t happen to them? Is Claire just an ordinary mom, or was she an expert horsewoman destined for an esteemed future, and now selected especially to demonstrate the robot suit.

Claire Lomas’s accidental, unintentional fall from a horse and the physical attack on Tina Nash by her boyfriend are part of what make their circumstances clearly distinct from one another. To say they are both examples of adversity to be overcome takes away from the different path each one will take, and from the effort of so many others with what some might see as lesser forms of adversity.

Blinded woman Tina Nash makes domestic violence appeal
By Rob Williams
May 11, 2012

Britain's bionic man: Robot suit allows Olympic torch bearer, 22, to walk again five years after seafront car smash: David Follett
By Daily Mail Reporter
Daily Mail
Apr 19, 2012

Claire Lomas: Matt Hampson impressed me more than any star
Leicester Mercury
May 19, 2012

The lesson we can all learn from the quiet heroism of these two women
By Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
May 13, 2012

A life with purpose lasts longer, researchers find
By Carla Wintersgill
Globe and Mail
Jun 18, 2009

Montreal Massacre 1989 - 2009
By Sue McPherson
Sue’s Views on the News
Dec 6, 2009

The REAL reason marathon woman deserves a medal: Let down by her ex when she needed him most... and how she found happiness with her husband
By Sadie Nicholas
Daily Mail
May 13, 2012

Robot Suit Helps Paraplegic Walk Again: Amanda Boxtel
Thomas Moore, science correspondent
Sky News
Oct 21, 2011

Tanni Grey-Thompson warns that Paralympic legacy is threatened by cuts
By Patrick Butler, social policy editor
May 20, 2012

No comments: