The Resilience Project

Over the past week, several publications that I read regularly have simultaneously included articles about “building resilience.” Does someone send a prompt out to the universe and wait for responses from journalists and writers?

In any case, it’s a topic that’s of great interest to me. In my experience, resilience is a quality that develops over time in response to challenges and hardships in one’s life. Reading a column about building resilience will not have much meaning to someone who has not been to the “school of hard knocks” as I have. In fact, I think I’ve had more than my share of them but I don’t say that to invoke sympathy; I say it because, compared with most people I know, I think it’s true. It’s also true that there are many whose lives are much more difficult than mine has been.

Instead of reciting a litany of hardships I’ve overcome in my life, I’d like to focus on the process of acquiring resilience. I developed it the hard way: being knocked down, crawling to my knees, then standing up…over and over again. This process, depending on the incident, sometimes took hours, days, weeks or decades. It was debilitating and exhausting. At age 70 I think I can finally say I have developed enough resilience to get me through difficult times with less suffering and more wisdom.

What took me so long? I was raised by a mother who had some admirable traits but was tough as nails; who didn’t believe in whining and offered no empathy or compassion whenever I found myself in a difficult situation. She was not a good model of resilience for me. I learned resilience on my own, in spite of her.

Now I have a daughter who has also definitely been given more challenges than the ordinary person. By age 30 she had had five open-heart surgeries (the fourth one nearly killed her) and has had to learn how to make a life for herself in spite of her PTSD from the many traumas she has suffered and the limitations that she must live with as a consequence of her congenital heart defect.

My daughter is my resilience project. In order to help her survive the challenges she has lived through and to face those we are not yet aware of, I have devoted much of my life to helping her (and myself) learn to develop resilience. Every time she reached a point where she felt deeply discouraged and depressed, I tried to think of a way to help her out of the abyss. This has forced me to dig very deeply into my personal well to find a shred of hope or encouragement to offer her. Over the years, in the process of trying to teach her resilience, I have learned a lot about it myself and have shared with her what I have learned.

For example, it took me a long time to learn that there is a “gray area” in life. I was raised to believe that everything was black or white. That if you didn’t tell the whole truth, you were lying. There was no wiggle room. But decades of living have taught me that for many people this isn’t so; most people live in the gray area and many people either don’t tell the truth or don’t want to hear the truth. Instead, they do what they need to do to protect themselves.

Learning this has enabled me to advise my daughter that it is ok for her to withhold the whole truth if there is a need to do so; that her feelings can be partially shared until she feels a certain level of comfort. When necessary and if no one is hurt by it, she can tell a “white lie” to get through a difficult situation while protecting herself. Most importantly she can do whatever it takes to overcome a challenge, and doing so will help her become more resilient. While I was taught to live along a straight and narrow path, I have taught her about options: how important it is to always have a Plan A and a Plan B…even a Plan C if necessary. We are building our resilience together.

One of the points made by Tara Parker-Pope who wrote “How to Build Resilience in Midlife” in the Science Times on August 1 is: Rewrite Your Story. Since most of us who blog on this site are teachers who share a love of story telling through writing, and who work hard to instill this skill in our students. I found her words instructive.

“Study after study has shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves….It’s about learning to recognize the explanatory story you tend to use in your life….Observe what you are saying to yourself and question it. It’s not easy it takes practice.”

In rewriting our stories together, my daughter and I are learning that while we have each had more than our share of challenges and setbacks, we are also two people with a passion for life, an innate curiosity about many things, a need to connect with others who share our passions, and a spirit strong enough to get us through the worst times. Oh, and did I mention we share a wicked sense of humor?

“There is a biology to this,” said Dr. (Dennis) Charney, a resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Your stress hormone systems will become less responsive to stress so you can handle stress better. Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress.” (Science Times 8/1/2017)

That is exactly what we are learning to do…together.