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"Life's Too Good Not to Be Happy": Voices of Resilience (and Hope)

"You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice."  Bob Marley, singer

Last week we were visiting with some friends.  A fun conversation. Then the man got a worried look. He started to talk about politics and the upcoming presidential election.  “It’s going to be bad no matter what happens,” he said. Heads nodded in agreement. The energy seemed to get sucked out of the room.


Sometimes life looks bleak. We despair. Over many things. Perhaps our health declines; maybe loved ones die.  Or we get hit by wildfires or some devastating act of nature. We want to curl up into a ball, understandably.


When that happens to me, I try to remember Mrs. Brussard. I met her some years ago in New Orleans, perhaps five years or so after Hurricane Katrina.  She taught me several lessons which can be rolled into a resource for resilience.


“I know I can always find something to do.  If I wasn’t doing this, I’d do something else. I have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.  My son died, my husband died, and I take care of a mentally ill son who lives with me, but I’m happy.  Life’s too good not to be happy," ends Mrs. Brussard after I first met her.  She tops it all off with a saucy lip pucker, then a big smile.


Mrs. Brussard was a Cajun restaurant receptionist in a lovely little spot, Montrel’s, close to the French Quarter. My husband and I watched her as she adjusted her menus, swayed her hips, and hummed to the rich jazz playing near the outdoor patio. She clearly loved life.


As we departed, we struck up a conversation about Hurricane Katrina.  Mrs. Brussard was one of those plucked from her rooftop by a helicopter. She was taken to Texas and later spent a month with her large family and wide circle of friends in a makeshift shelter that still stands in her backyard.


Resilience refers to the ability to bounce back after a stressful experience, to overcome adversity and even thrive under traumatic conditions. Growing interest has led to much more research into the lives of people like Mrs. Brussard.


Researchers believe that resilient people tap into four reservoirs of strength. We can increase our own psychological strength by incorporating more of these four into our lives…because there's always some crappy bad fortune happening or on the horizon.


First and foremost, hardy folks have developed good relationships.  These relationships buffer them from tough times. Mrs. Brussard maintains close friendships with most of her family members and fellow church members. 


Good relationships can be developed in several ways. We can get to know our colleagues at work. We can also connect with those who share similar interests in sports and hobbies. Service clubs and religious groups also offer opportunities for friendships. We can make a more concerted effort to get to know our neighbors.


Second, resilience is fostered through engagement, activity, and growth.  When we are involved with life, we stay psychologically fit. We become more confident when we continue to use and develop our skills. 


Mrs. Brussard told me that as she grew older, she began to do jobs that didn’t require as much physical strength, such as being a receptionist. Work, volunteering, being involved with family are all ways of continuing to grow and be active.


Third, we can become more psychologically tough by having more positive emotions.  Even though Mrs. Brussard suffers from a few physical ailments, has experienced the anguish of losing very close family members, and watched her home be flooded and bashed and she readily acknowledges that pain. Still Mrs. Brussard allows herself to enjoy the jazz music… and talks positively to herself.


Exercise helps to lift emotions - getting outside for a twenty-minute walk in the sunshine, especially with a friend, boosts our spirits.  Listening to our favorite music can also increase some people’s positivity. Using life-affirming self-talk can help.


Fourth, researchers believe that meaning or purpose increases our ability to hang in there during tough times. Mrs. Brussard said that attending one of the historic Catholic cathedrals in New Orleans buoyed her up. Her religion tells her she’s here for a reason. She's able to live out her purpose, especially at work.


Bringing more meaning to our lives can be difficult as we age, but it is about how we view what we do more than the actual work we are doing. Researcher, Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, maintains that in every occupation about a third of the people see their work as a job, about a third see their work as a career, and about a third as a calling.


Mrs. Brussard’s actual job is greeting people, handing them menus, and seating them. Mrs. Brussard, however, believed her job was crucial - lifting others up, and helping them see that “life is too good not to be happy.” She had a calling, a ministry.


Good relationships, being involved with life, positive emotions, and bringing meaning to our lives… and maybe even repeating an affirming mantra like Mrs. Broussard can help us be happier even when things are tough.


We need to remember that we humans are resilient.  That’s also a lesson I have heard a lot from people like Dr. Jane Goodall when I read her writing or listen to her speak. Wonky stuff that hurts does happen and who knows what’s on the horizon? We can acknowledge the precariousness of life – the challenges and uncurl from our fetal position.  How? We can remember folks like Mrs. Brussard, tap into our resources, and trust in our resilience as individuals and as a species. Have hope.


How might we journey together to The Good Life by looking at resilient role models, tapping into our resources, trusting in our resilience as a species, and having hope?


And here are a few passages from Boundless Compassion to help us on the journey:


“If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.  If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction.” Howard Zinn, The Optimism of Uncertainty.

“Our world is abundant with quiet, hidden lives of beauty and courage and goodness. There are millions of people any given moment, young and old, giving themselves over to service, risking hope, and all the while ennobling us all.  To take such goodness in and let it matter – to let it define our take on reality as much as headlines of violence – is a choice we can make to live by the light in the darkness, to be brave and free…Taking in the good, whenever and wherever we find it, gives us new eyes for seeing and living.”  Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise.


And from the amazing Jane Goodall, English zoologist, primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace.


“It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.” Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey


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