I just met with a group of doctors under the wise and beautiful guidance of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom. We meet monthly to talk about Finding Meaning in Medicine, a program lead all over the country which aims to put doctors back in touch with the heart of healing. This month’s topic was “Resilience,” and as you can imagine, lively discussion ensued.
What is Resilience?
It got me thinking. What does it mean to be resilient? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Certainly, in the US, we ascribe great value to the idea of resilience. If someone experiences a trauma and manages to get back to the details of life a short time later, we praise this person for being “so strong.” When Haitians crawl out from under the rubble to witness the devastation of their city only to talk about how grateful they are to be alive, we smile. It makes us feel good. All is right with our world as long as people can just “put it all behind them and move on.” But is that really resilience? Or is it just denial?
Maybe resilience means that you’re like a rubber band — you can pulled and stretched out of shape, but you bounce right back into the shape in which you started. Sure, you’ve lost your husband, you just got fired, and your house burned down with your dog inside — but damn if you aren’t resilient for being able to bounce right back.
The Pros and Cons of Bouncing Back
But wait a minute. Is that a good thing? Do we want to be like rubber bands after a major life change? Or do we want to allow a natural reshaping to occur? Is it okay if we no longer look like a rubber band. Maybe now — we look more like a square. But we’re still whole — we’re still intact. We are not broken. We’re just no longer in the same shape anymore. Is that resilience?
On the flip side, maybe being a rubber band can benefit us. Sometimes we’re subjected to tremendous external pressure to change our shape. My medical school training is an example of that, for sure. So is being in the military, perhaps. Being a prisoner of war. Marrying into a family that doesn’t accept you. I’m sure there are hundreds of examples of situations in which you are pressured to change your shape. You are expected to morph — and yet, because you are resilient, you retain your original shape, in spite of the pressure to be different. In spite of it all — somewhere, deep down, you remember who you really are.
Next: Tips for Cultivating Resilience