While once having a deep and philosophical 5-hour telephone conversation with a potential date, we discussed the role of resilience in our lives. He had suffered huge losses. Marriage breakdown with a wife from Japan who wanted to go back, and take their 10-year-old daughter with her. He loved them both enough to say yes. He lost his job a few weeks later. A year to the day, his father passed away.
What is resilience?
It’s the ability to get back up after repeatedly getting knocked down.
It’s grit and determination to succeed despite the odds.
It is people who can rise from the ashes.
It’s J.K. Rowling saying “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
OK, but what is it really? It’s the ability to make lemonade out of lemons. It’s that glass-half-full mentality. It’s a healthy dose of realism with a small side order of optimism. I’m not talking about the “it’s not cancer and everything will be fine” brand of optimism. I am talking about “I will survive” optimism. One is denial. The other is facing life head on.
It’s the ability to regulate feelings and emotions and not letting them punch you in the gut and overpower you. It’s realizing that failure is a natural part of the path to success. It’s a – sometimes dark – sense of humour. Diane Coutu, a research psychologist, says that resilient people possess three qualities(1):
- A staunce acceptance of reality
- A firm belief that that life is meaninful
- The uncanny ability to improvise
I had moments in the early days where I was either in denial or trying to cut a deal with God. “God, WHY is this happening to me? Why me?” But I knew why me and I accepted my cancer diagnosis because I found meaning in it. I built a bridge from the undeniably horrible reality of cancer to a bigger, better future. I gave my cancer purpose, meaning and value.
I have always been the party girl. Born on New Year’s Eve an hour before midnight … My first dramatic entrance and I made damn sure I didn’t miss the party! Same with cancer. I was NOT going to miss the party. I made cancer my best accessory! I had no idea I could launch such creativity under adversity.
If I gave up after every failure, where would I be? Looking at a two-dimensional point in someone’s life doesn’t tell you how resilient they are. If you are fortunate enough, adversity rarely comes knocking at your door. Check out the list of the most stressful events one can face in life and ask yourself how many you have had and how closely they clustered together.
- Death of a loved one.
- A painful divorce.
- Job loss.
- Financial crisis or ruin.
- A serious accident or illness.
- Bullying or abuse.
- Single parenting.
- Pregnancy/Adoption and/or pregnancy loss.
- Relationship difficulties.
- Lawsuit/legal difficulties
Imagine yourself. A million dollar home, a gorgeous spouse, beautiful children, everyone is healthy, a successful career, supportive parents and a plenty of toys. But what happens if that all went away? How would you respond and cope? Are you flexible enough to bounce thru the crises, almost as if they didn’t happen?
We find out what we are made of when faced with catastrophe. Do you conquer the mountain or succumb at the beginning of the climb?
Aside from luck, what quality do resilient people possess? How they respond to stressors. They are positive, don’t take everything personally … meaning they realize that the circumstances suck, not them. And shit happens to the best of us. They aren’t smarter, they just have the ability to focus and keep themselves marching in the right direction.
The central element of resilience is … do you see an insurmountable problem or a unique challenge? The event itself isn’t what makes or breaks us. It’s our response.
Studies have shown that people who have some sort of spirituality are more resilient. We understand hope. I used to get angry, annoyed and frustrated if I was made late by foolish circumstances, like traffic lights out at an intersection, or hitting every damn red light and being stuck behind every slow driver. Now I accept that God’s plan is for me to get there a little later. Perhaps my life depends on it.
Would you believe me if I told you that if the Higher Power came to me and said “You can go back in time and choose whether you want to go through this cancer journey again or not” … I would choose the cancer journey. Yes. It has been, for the most part, a positive experience because I made it a positive experience. I treated it like I treat everything else in my life. An adventure to be enjoyed. Carpe Diem. I was open and eager – yes EAGER – to experience the journey. The surgery. The diagnosis. The tests. The chemo. The radiation. The side effects. The reading and writing. Spilling everything out onto blank screens and white sheets of paper. The gorgeous doctors.
The people I admire are the ones who are still standing after their own string of stresses. I think almost all of us can make it through one … maybe two. But three? Four? Five? All ten? The people who showed me some grace during my cancer were people who have known pain, adversity and stress. They’ve been there. They know that every one of us has a story.
Resilience can shrivel up and die. It is a delicate balance of because all of us have a breaking point. There have been days when I have thought I hit mine. But I got back up. Tomorrow was another day and somehow I kept going.
Why do people stop getting up and quit?
The man who sits at home unemployed after losing his job.
The woman who still plays victim to her failed marriage.
The child just gets bullied one to many times.
It’s tragic to watch someone you love give up.
Where do you get resilience? Nature and nurture. Life tests all of us, but some people manage to shine and burst from the ashes like the rising phoenix. Others crumble apart. You can become resilient. I will leave the steps for another blog post on another day.
Be good to yourself,
1 Harvard Business Review, May 2002 How Resilience Works by Diane Coutu.