You are not a rubber band.
We need to stop thinking about human resilience through the lens of Newtonian physics. People aren’t elastic. You are not a rubber that stretches, neatly recoils, and reverts to a previous state. Yet, somehow, this has become the expectation. People don’t “bounce back” from hardship. Most get through it, and the resilient move out and up.
Humans are marked by the trials of their lives. People are changed by pain. In the during and after, they face a choice: Do I let this break me, or do I use my experience in a way that leaves me transformed?
Resilience is different than endurance. It’s not mere survival. Resilience is becoming stronger. Smarter. It requires showing up and pressing forward with intention, purpose, and direction.
The pandemic has left people fractured in many ways–emotionally, physically, financially, relationally. Opportunities for something new and stronger to emerge exist in these spaces. Earnest Hemmingway said: The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places. People often focus on his words, “strong at the broken places,” but it’s important to think about the “some.”
What sets apart the resilient who recover from the rest?
Why are some made stronger by suffering but others defeated?
Who is a victim, and who is victorious?
The resilient choose.
Resilience is about your mindset and your habits. It is a mentality and a practice.
Resilience starts with you.
The Resilient Mind
The mentality of resilience involves making meaning of what happens to you. Forming purpose in pain is different than finding blame. Sometimes people reach for reasons “why” tragedy happens. “Why” matters little, “now what”—a lot. Resilient people focus less on cause and more on creating result. The pursuit of what you can do with what you have learned is useful. Spending a lot of time and energy asking questions that may not have answers isn’t.
Resilience requires you to harness your attention and direct it to productive places. No one will ever be able to strip you of the control you have over your mind. Think about what you can change – your attitude, actions, and frame of experience.
Resilient people take an honest look at how they participate in making their situations more difficult. Internal narrative, attitude, inaction, and irresponsibility can perpetuate self-induced suffering.
The resilient are realistic. You need to maintain hope without being naively optimistic. In the Vietnam War, Admiral James Stockdale spent over seven years in a POW camp. In reflection on his experience, he articulated what is known as the Stockdale Paradox. He described the psychological profile of the prisoners who did not survive like this:
“The optimists. . .Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Resilience as a Practice
Resilience is active. The practice of resilience involves exercising agency where you have it. If something bad happened to you, don’t give your power away. Identify a target to reach for in the future. Pursue a purpose. Be a part of something outside yourself. Share and contribute. Struggle up instead of spiraling down.
How do we make gold from dross? Freud used the language of defenses to describe one option we have to respond to difficulty—sublimation. People sublimate when they take socially unacceptable impulses or desires and channel them into positive behaviors. Are you angry about what happened to you? Box instead of busting a hole in your window. You will be stronger and less bloody. Reinvest the energy created by your circumstances into something that will help you.
Resilience is taking responsibility. You don’t choose what happens to you, but you are liable for how your respond to it. Own behaviors that follow your hard. Trauma can be a crucible for resilience, only if you let it. You decide how you medicate your pain or treat it.
Muscle fibers rip under strain and strengthen during rest. Repair happens in recovery periods. When you’ve experienced stress, take action to address the physical, psychological, and relational impact that adverse events have had on you. There is important work to do after crisis has abated. Aftereffects will remain until appropriately addressed.
Trials can alter our trajectory. Misfortune doesn’t modify our essence, but collision with difficulty can send us down a new path. Decide where you want to go.
In the inevitable chaos of this universe, you will be confronted with pain. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Expect it and do your best to prepare. When hit by trouble, what will your response be? You can let hard things shatter your spirit and kill your will. Or, you can opt to use adversity as opportunity—a chance for self-discovery and amelioration. The choice will always be yours.
We are not what happens to us.
We are what we do with it.