What is resilience? Who has it and who doesn’t? How can you improve yours… just in case you need it one day?
Is resilience a state of mind or is it a series of behaviors? Does it reside in how you feel or in how you act in the world?
Let’s accept that psychologists have been using the concept of resilience to explain why some people recover from trauma more rapidly and more effectively than others.
Clare Ansberry writes about it in the Wall Street Journal:
Everyone experiences loss and setbacks. We are diagnosed with serious illnesses and injured in accidents. We lose homes, jobs and loved ones. Yet even the most traumatized often manage—over time and with help—to slowly piece together their lives. It is a painful and rarely linear process, but it can strengthen people in unexpected ways. Many are able to transcend their hurt by providing help to others, and in doing so give direction to their waylaid lives.
Some people are more optimistic. Some people have better social support networks. Some people refuse to let even a tragedy get them down.
These people tend to be optimistic—thinking things will work out—and are able to accept what can’t be changed and focus on what can be, he says. They recognize that even though they didn’t have a choice in their loss, they are responsible for their own happiness.
When we ask how one can go about becoming more optimistic and more positive, one way is to choose one’s friends well.
In Ansberry’s words:
For example, people can develop a more optimistic view by cultivating friendships with positive people and challenging negative thoughts.
Of course, there are traumas and there are traumas. When Carolyn Moor, a young mother with two small children, lost her husband in an automobile accident, her world fell apart. She herself nearly fell apart.
What did she do? Ansberry describes Moor’s way of dealing with trauma:
She went through the motions, getting her daughters out of bed, dressing and feeding them, and volunteered at a grief group called New Hope For Kids. “I put on a good face in public,” she says. Inside, she says, she was a wreck, not sure of what to do with her life. She met other widows at the grief group but didn’t know anyone who could show her how to move forward.
Evidently, Moor had responsibilities to her daughters. She did whatever she could to make their lives as orderly as possible. She wanted to limit the disruption they had experienced when their father died.
So, she went through the motions. In the therapy world, people tend to believe that insight cures. In this case, going through the motions and putting on a good public face constitute resilience.
She did not need to understand what she was doing or why she was doing it.
Obviously, some people cannot go through the motions. Some people refuse to do anything. Some people refuse to go out in public. One would be correct to say that they are not resilient.
I would suggest that people who have strict and very regular schedules must be more resilient than are those who do not. Those who have a goodly amount of routinized behavior, behavior that feels automatic when it is performed are probably more capable of continuing it even when they have suffered a trauma.
Surely, it is also true that people who are directly responsible for the well-being of others, who can perform their daily rituals with an attitude of benevolence are more resilience than are those who focus on their personal pain and grief.
This suggests that resilience involves the ability to perform, to behave in a certain way, regardless of the emotional stress. It does not resemble spiritual enlightenment as much as it resembles the training that a soldier undergoes… the kind that will allow him to do his job regardless of the stress.
If resilience involves tasks that need to be performed, it can be undermined by doing the wrong thing.
Carolyn Moor had made one mistake in the aftermath of her loss. As it happened, a rabbi helped her to correct it:
Rabbi Boteach asked her to look at the choices she was making to see if they were the best for her and daughters. One stood out. Every year on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of her husband’s death, she opened a memory box. Inside, along with her husband’s watch and architectural drawings, was a stained sweater that she had worn the night of the accident. It was, she reasoned, a way to honor her husband by never forgetting the pain of that day.
Doing so, though, left her—and her daughters—focused on Chad’s tragic end, rather than their happy times together.
Keeping a reminder of a tragedy did not help her. It did not, as the rabbi said, help her to focus on the good in the relationship. One object in the memory box was working against her and she needed to release herself from its hold.
She also sold her house and did other things to put more distance between her and the life she had lost.
Eventually, her mind caught up with her resilient habits. We will say, for now that we do not know how this happened.
When you are learning how to play a game, you begin by going through the motions. At some point you learn how to play the game and are said to know how to do so.