“A good half of the art of living is resilience.”
― Alain de Botton, contemporary philosopher and author
How would you like to be more psychologically tough so that even when awful stuff comes your way (physically, financially, politically, or emotionally), you’d be able to successfully cope with it and learn to see it as …life? If you could do that with a huge, sincere smile, you’d be a lot like a man I knew, Don.
Don taught me a lot before he died. He took many slugs, especially of the medical variety. He had prostate cancer, chronic lymphatic leukemia, skin cancer, double pneumonia, and Barrett esophagus, just to name the heavies. His perspective on all this... “it’s part of life.”
Don psychologically flourished despite it all. He might even have said because of it all. He considered himself as a very, very lucky guy.
What made Don so dang tough?
Perhaps that grittiness Don had was just luck - in his DNA, or perhaps it was his training at the Air Force Academy. That’s not what Don thought.
Don recalled the good role-models of resilience his parents and grandparents were. For example, his mother survived uterine cancer, breast cancer, and a tragic car accident to live to ninety when she died after fighting colon cancer for two years. She focused on mentoring others rather than asking, “why me?”
Don also thought his wife, other family members, and friends buoyed him up. He told me, “My wife has always been there for me… She just called me a few minutes ago. My friends let me mow their lawns and shovel their snow. They know I like to do it. It lets me be normal and maintain my self-worth.”
Don continued, “I also work on Habitat for Humanity with my church members and do things with Lions club.” Keeping busy doing work for friends and community fills his cup.
Don also spoke about the importance for him of a good medical community who knew the importance of the whole person. “When you have a medical problem, you don’t go down a black hole. The doctors and the nurses are tremendously positive. They have you up and back into your community of friends as soon as possible.
Some of Don’s wisdom reflects the ten resilience-building recommendations from the American Psychological Association.
(1) maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;
(2) avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
(3) accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
(4) develop realistic goals and move towards them;
(5) take decisive actions in adverse situations (rather than think problems will just go away);
(6) look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
(7) develop self-confidence;
(8) keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
(9) maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;
(10) take care of one's mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one's own needs and feelings and engaging in relaxing activities that one enjoys.
I wasn’t asked by the APA, but if I had been, I would have recommended invoking self-compassion as the first step and as a continual part of the resilience-building process especially noticing emotions and directing kindness and understanding toward them.
When Don examined the APA list, he endorsed all the recommendations. He said it’s particularly imperative to avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems.
Don shared that confidence is essential and connected to staying hopeful. “I know I can always figure out a way to deal with things – take my meds, find out more about my issues, take care of myself, get out and walk, ask for help from my family and friends, and especially see my glass as half-full, never half-empty.”
Don said it’s important for him to respond "always good" after anyone asked how he was doing. “It gives me a chance to verbalize the positive way I do feel, and I want people to get that.”
Don wasn’t being inauthentic or not having compassion for himself. He really did feel upbeat, glad to be alive. He circled back to the importance of community. Of all the APA recommendations, he said maintaining good relationships with close family members and friends was the most important.
When Don and I last talked he thought appreciatively about his support and how important it is for us to offer support to each other, his eyes watered. “We’ve got to be there, be role-models, mentors, and encourage each other. Let each other know that we can cope. We can feed off each others' stories, strength, support.”
George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Columbia University, has been studying resilience for almost thirty years. Bonanno has been trying to figure out why some people are far better than others at dealing with adversity.
Bonanno says that all of us have the same fundamental stress-response system which has evolved over millions of years. Most of us are pretty good at using that system to deal with tough stuff, but some of us, like Don, are much more effective at how we use our stress-response systems.
Bonanno believes it all comes down to how we think about the tough stuff...is it a trauma or an opportunity to learn and grow? Events are not traumatic until we think of them as traumatic.
Sometimes I notice myself ruminating over some stressor, I remember to shift my mind to Don. It gives me strength and confidence…recalling his words like tough stuff is "a part of life" and “I can always figure out a way to deal with things…find out more about my issues, take care of myself, get out and walk, ask for help from my family and friends…see my glass as half-full.”
More than likely at some point we will all face at least one significant hardship, we can take some time to be compassionate and kind toward ourselves as a first step toward resilience, keep those APA guidelines handy, think of Bonanno's research (perception is everything), and remember Don’s words. "Together we can become hardier, feed off each other.”
With practice, we may even come to see our tough stuff as an opportunity to grow… and,…outrageous as it sounds (I dare to say it only because Don did even at the very end), consider ourselves very, very lucky.
How might we build our resilience together and Journey to The Good Life?
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