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
Resilience in the World
Then you see these people who experience what might seem like unbearable tragedy. They lose their whole family in a car accident. They find out their husband has been sexually molesting their daughter. They wind up in the midst of an earthquake in Haiti or a hurricane in New Orleans — and their whole world is changed overnight. And yet, they manage somehow to keep living. It’s as if they make a choice to survive the next 5 minutes. And then 5 minutes later, they do it again. Days and weeks go by as 5 minute intervals pass one after the other. Is that resilience? Or merely a profound example of the will to live?
Resilience in Person
I asked this of one of the women I cast for The Woman Inside Project. Her personal story of how her breast cancer came about was particularly traumatic and yet she emerged a phoenix. I was in awe of her. I asked her how she did it, and she thought about it for weeks. Then she sent me an e-mail that said, “I guess I’ve just always had the faith that I will land butter side up.”
Is resilience something we are born with — a part of our genetic make-up? A manifestation of our environment? Or is it something we can cultivate? Can we practice resilience? Can we in any way prepare for the challenges that inevitably lie ahead for all of us? I believe we can. Here are some thoughts on how we might do that.
Tips For Cultivating Resilience in the Midst Of Hardship
- Nurture relationships in your life. Tend to your family and friendships. If tragedy strikes, you will be mainlining these people. They will be your lifeline.
- Have faith. Believe in a higher power.
- Avoid thinking of any challenge as impossible to bear. How you think affects how you feel.
- Accept what you cannot change. Focus on trying to change the things you can change and not trying to change the things you can’t. When you resist, you suffer. Remember — pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Joy is a choice.
- Laugh — often and hard. Even if it’s not genuine. Practice laughter yoga. Watch silly movies. Read comics. Whatever it takes. Laughing is healthy for your body and feeds the spirit.
- Seek meaning in what has happened.
- Never give up hope.
- Stay flexible. Recognize that the only thing certain in life is change.
- Keep a journal. Write your truth.
- Set achievable goals.
- Practice stress management and relaxation techniques, such as meditation, guided imagery, prayer, warm baths, and massage.
- Take care of your body. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Allow yourself extra sleep.
- Forgive yourself. Healing begins with self-love and acceptance.
- Avoid being stubborn and prideful.
- Understand that there is no right or wrong way to experience life’s challenges. Allow yourself to find your own way of healing.
- Learn from how you have overcome challenges in the past.
- Give yourself as much time as you need to feel what you feel.
- Consider therapy.
- Schedule activities that bring you peace and joy.
- Find community. Seek out loving, nurturing people who will hold space and allow you to feel your feelings. Realize that you are never alone.
#20 is my favorite. I believe that the community with which we surround ourselves allows us to tap into our own resilience, in the best sense of the world. Our community empowers us, strengthens us, supports us, guides us, and allows us to be right where we’re at. I’m a big believer in the power of community (it’s why I founded Owning Pink!).We are never alone. We all walk this planet linked by deep roots that interconnect us. When we experience pain, we are one of many who have tapped into their own resilience and found a way to survive, even thrive. With your sisters and brothers lifting you up, it is so much easier.
Let us be here for you and share your thoughts. What does it mean to be resilient? How you have survived tough times? What tips do you have for others in crisis?