A quiet miracle: resilience
Through tragedy and loss, what causes us to choose to keep going?
Storms come, inevitable and inexorable. They twist and rage, and in their wake buildings fall and homes splinter, peace fades, hearts break. Graves dug, doors closed, hopes lost — unavoidable on the path of life.
The vicissitudes of circumstance can be a perpetual fist to the gut, and as the blows land there is a choice: to fall down and stay down, or to fall down and get back up.
These feet of clay, Shakespeare’s “muddy vesture of decay,” seem so fragile, things that break rather than bend. Yet, bend they often do. Tragedy comes, and through the haze of tears a quiet miracle: resilience. Standing up again and again and again.
“Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities,” wrote Ann S. Masten, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, in the March 2001 issue of American Psychologist, “but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies.”
It’s been a hard year, a hard couple of years, maybe a hard decade. Tornadoes destroying entire towns, earthquakes devastating countries, floods, massacres, droughts, wars, famines — this is the reality, the world unvarnished. People are plunged into the morass without getting time to draw a deep breath. Nobody chooses hardship and sorrow.
“I didn’t have a choice,” is the common refrain. “It was either lay down and die, or keep going.”
But that elasticity, that resilience, that putting of one foot in front of the other is a choice, one of the most vital, basic choices the human heart and mind can make.
“Regardless of how overwhelming things can be, and people go through horrific tragedies often in this world, those who seem to be able to get on with their lives feel a sense of personal ability to make positive changes,” said Dr. Dale E. Bowen, a Grand Junction psychologist.
“Resilient personality” is a clinical psychological term and there’s an entire field of psychological study devoted to resilience. What makes some give up while others keep going? Opinions vary, but common threads emerge from the research.
“People who are loved at an early age, loved unconditionally, are more resilient,” said Grand Junction psychologist Dr. Maridel T. Andres. “If you have experienced that love and have that foundation of trust, it’s more likely you’re resilient.”
Building on that, Bowen added that resilient people often have supportive families, friends or social circles that pull together rather than fracture in stressful situations. Masten referred to this as part of the “protective systems” for human resilience, which also include attachment relationships; religious or cultural systems, as well as schools and communities that nurture human development and resilience; a brain in good working order; motivation to adapt; opportunities for agency; and self-control and emotion regulation.
A strong foundation of support, Andres said, is critical.
“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead,” Albert Einstein said, “and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and I am still receiving.”
In her studies of resilience in children, Masten has reported finding common factors of problem-solving skills, self-regulation skills and positive beliefs about the self. These traits also can be seen in resilient adults, too.
“People who are more resilient tend to be able to recognize problems that were caused by others or by forces outside of themselves,” Bowen said. “They’re able to say, it wasn’t me who caused this, it was just circumstances, but they recognize they’ve got the resources to overcome problems.
“Also, they interpret negative circumstances as temporary setbacks rather than permanent. They see problems as being specific rather than general. They’re able to say, I’ve just got a problem in this one area, rather than feeling that everything’s against me.”
Resilient people are ones who possess “realistic hope,” Andres said. This does not mean blind optimism, but an ability to recognize good when it comes, however small.
George A. Bonanno, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, wrote in the article “Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience” (January 2004, American Psychologist) that resilience is something that can be cultivated. He cited hardiness as a pathway to resilience, meaning “being committed to finding meaningful purpose in life, the belief that one can influence one’s surroundings and the outcome of events, and the belief that one can learn and grow from both positive and negative life experiences.”
Adaptability is vital to resilience, Andres said, a willingness to change as life and circumstances change.
“The ones who bend with adversity look at it with an attitude that it can be overcome,” Bowen said. “Rather than sitting and waiting to be rescued, they look for the things that they can control.”
Also, he said, those who grow their resilience are those who “start getting busy helping others. When you stop focusing so much on your own losses and hurts, instead helping people overcome theirs, you start to realize that other people have it worse than you have it and you stop dwelling so much on your own feelings of loss and pain.”
There is no one model of resiliency, Andres said, but there are common threads and, ultimately, a declaration that “I will drive my own road safely.”
So, when the clouds mass and the storms gather, when the rain falls and the wind blows, when the ground lurches… When all these things inevitably happen, when there seems to be no end, when time stretches through the gloom, eventually the clouds part and the sun shines through.