I had planned to write a humorous post this week, but that will have to wait. What I find myself thinking obsessively about today is resilience. “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (thank you Webster’s) is quite a profound grace.
When adversity strikes, it is tempting to wallow. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to spend days – if not weeks – in the slough of despond crying “Woe is me”? I know it doesn’t sound like something you would do voluntarily, except that when life falls apart around you it is suddenly a pretty appealing option. Compared with the alternatives, like bearing it with good will and a sense of humor, self-pity seems incredibly seductive.
But as Samuel Johnson said, “Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.” If this is true, then using the moments of our biggest hurdles to learn our own capacities can be an opportunity for deep growth. But how do we develop this kind of resilience? Are we born with it, or do we discover it within ourselves when we exercise the only real power we have in these moments — the power to choose our own reaction?
In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl wrote powerfully about this power of choice. In his case, the crucible for discovering his own capabilities was life in Nazi prison camps. For most of us, the adverse conditions in which we find ourselves do not compare with Auschwitz. They are more likely illness or injury, burnout, stress, chronic financial strain, cars breaking down when we can least afford them to. I don’t mean to minimize the pain of these experiences, only to point out their less than epic nature. We think we might rise to the occasion in an epic struggle. But what about simple, daily, hurdles which drain our pocketbooks and/or leach our positive energy?
I’ve come to believe that resilience can be cultivated. I’ve watched my friend Dave build it in his daughters by telling them daily, “Is this how you want to feel? If not, then choose something else.” And those girls are able to redirect their emotional energy – the first step is learning that it is possible to do so. (In fact, Dave has given me the same lecture time and again, with good, if mixed, results. Like a second language, children learn this more quickly than adults.) Sometimes, you cultivate your capacity to bounce back by pretending. During resident assistant training every year, I tell my student staff that they need to project calm in emergency situations — they don’t have to actually feel calm, just act that way. The secret hidden in this advice is that projecting calm often leads to mastering your feelings of panic. Projection won’t take you all the way, but it can help to jump-start movement in a positive direction.
The other day my friend Melissa was feeling burned out. She found that focusing on something she could control, rather than focusing on her burnout, made the difference. She told me, “I’m glad to see I’m pretty resilient these days… a 4.5 mile jog and a swim at the beach helped me bounce back.” Another friend, facing yet another financial setback, worked to get his thinking aligned in order to flow with the current rather than get caught in the riptide of self-pity. His mantra was, “I’m fluid, I’m fluid, I’m fluid”.
Important in both of my friends’ abilities to face these difficult moments was choosing to bounce with resilience rather than splat with despair. This kind of choosing may look relatively simple from the outside, but superficial or platitudinous thinking won’t actually cut it. We have to want it, more than we want to win the “I have the worst life” story contest we carry on inside our heads (come on, that’s not just me, is it?!). And wanting it, we have to also choose it, consciously, in each moment. So, today, I pledge to cultivate resilience in myself — and to support those I love in finding the inner resources to choose it themselves. Let’s go for the bounce, people!