Perseverance and perseveration: words from the same root, similar but nuanced.

I first heard the word “perseveration” in my life before kids, when I worked with people who had experienced tramautic brain injury (TBI), helping them find services and assistance to live in the community. Monthly, I met with people in their homes or at their work sites to review their services and safety at home. As I got to know the people and their stories, I also witnessed their difficulty with perseveration.

Perseveration is the uncontrollable repetition of a word, phrase, or action, common with individuals who have TBI. Partly, in my experience, the perseveration happens in conjunction with short term memory loss. An individual who continutes to repeat the same phrase may be doing it, in part, because he can’t remember saying it before, or can’t remember the response he has gotten.

An example: Bob was the owner of a successful roofing company, by his own description a world traveler and girl-magnet, when he turned his truck and hit a semi head-on. He experienced severe brain trauma as well as physical injuries. When I met him, Bob lived in his own home with round the clock care from personal assistants. His perseveration centered on one thing: determination to walk again so he could resume his business. Like a mantra, he would repeat, again and again during our conversations, the singular phrase: I want to walk again so I can get my business back.

I would gently steer our conversation to more achievable goals, talk with Bob about physical therapy, plans for a surgery that might improve his mobility, his upcoming poker night with old friends. The heartbreak of TBI, though, is that after any distraction I might give, Bob circled back to the same phrase: I want to walk again so I can get my business back. Without fail, Bob would repeat that phrase during our conversations.

Since I didn’t know Bob before his injury, I am only speculating, but my theory is that prior to his injury, he had the same type of determination about building his business. I am curious if there is some personal quality of perseverance that Bob possessed before the injury that went somehow awry with his brain trauma. What was once desirable, laudable, became, in light of his injury, a disorder.

Perseverating on a topic is undesirable. Focus on one topic or action to the exclusion of everything else is at best an annoyance to others, at worst a major impediment to growth or healthy relationships.

Still, I admire that spark in Bob that stayed true his life’s mission. Deep inside, in the tangle of confused thoughts, frustrations, and disappointments, Bob’s deepest motivations found words and expression.

In considering perseverance as a desirable quality, I think about Bob. I want to spend my energy and fight on the most important things. I have no need to persevere in the trivial and insignificant issues of life; when I persevere, I want to persevere in those areas that are most meaningful. I want to persevere for and about those things I value most.

This was originally posted at Mountain State University LeaderTalk and is re-posted with permission.