Recipes for Resilience: Ideas in Opposition

Resilience
I was recently asked to speak at a local high school on the topic of resilience. I was flattered by the request, but my first thought was; “sure I know things about resilience from my professional life, but I may not be the best person to speak with in terms of personal experience.” And then I paused and laughed. I realized that I could come up with at least ten things in my life that had required resilience including the murder of a family friend, a major professional transition and having a child with a serious medical condition.

The fact that I could not come up with these examples instantly was not a sign of creeping senility (though I am not ruling it out), but actually part of resilience. The fact that these episodes in my life no longer define me and that I do not carry them with me every moment of every day, showcases my resilience- my ability to bounce back.

This moment of forgetting made me think about resilience in terms of ideas in opposition. When I spoke to the students, I explained the four sets of tensions in the following way:

  1. Letting Go & Remembering. Resilience is about being able to let go of past trauma and move on. If we carry our burdens around with us all the time, they are simply too heavy and we will not be able to move forward. Resilience requires a little bit of forgetting or letting go.However, this letting go is not about repressing bad memories. It is about integrating them. It is important to remember so that when we encounter difficult situations, we can access our own learning from the past. Resilience is about remembering the past in order to avoid that which we have learned is toxic and utilizing our hard won skills to handle what cannot be avoided.
  2. Knowing Who You Are & Being Able to Change. Resilience is about knowing who you are and what is important to you. Life is challenging and it’s a good idea to spend some time figuring out your values. What is important to you? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? Your answers will help guide you as you move through life. If you have thought about these things in advance, when you encounter difficult choices or problems, you will be able to make decisions that are in line with your values and who you are.However, the other side of the tension or opposition is the importance of being able to change. Life will inevitably challenge you and throw road blocks in the path you have chosen. Sometimes, resilience is about persevering and moving those boulders out of the way. But other times, resilience is about deciding that it’s time to chart a new path; that the rocks are too heavy or perhaps not worth moving in the first place. Life changes us and we should not be afraid to change course simply because it is different than the plan we once made.
  3. Connections and Being Alone. Resilience is about connections. Studies show that having deep personal connections with friends or family help foster resilience. It is essential to cultivate such relationships so that when life knocks you down, you have someone to give you a hand up (even if the hand is really just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on).But resilience is also about the ability to be alone. It is about being able to sit with yourself, enjoying solitude and quiet. It is about sitting quietly without having to reach for your smartphone to text or post on social media. It is about being whole on your own without needing another person to fill you up.
  1. Feeling Deeply and Humor. Resilience is about being able to feel powerful emotions- from love to sorrow, from joy to pain, from passion to fear. Resilience is about being able to sit with these deep emotions- even the uncomfortable ones. You can never outrun those feelings. It may take a little while- a week, a month, a year, a decade- but eventually the things you run from will catch up to you. Being able to sit in sadness and feel it- really truly feel it- allows you to move on. Deep emotions are where resilience (and our very humanity) is cultivated.In opposition to this is the importance of being able to insert just enough distance between you and the emotion to laugh. I have come to believe that humor is an essential part of resilience. Being able to laugh at absurdity and pain is an important coping skill. There are certainly people who use humor as a way of not coping- and I am not speaking of this type. Humor, at its best, allows you to see something from a slightly different perspective. This slight shift can take enough of the edge off a situation to allow you to stay and be present. Your humor can be snarky and sarcastic or light and fluffy- but laughter is truly one of the best medicines.

The last piece of wisdom I offered the students was that although I had highlighted these four tensions as keys to resilience, the truth is that there are as many variants as there are people in the world. What works for one person may not work for another. But cultivating resilience is about trial and error. And the startling thing about resilience is that one must encounter adversity to cultivate it. So the next time you find yourself knocked down by life, realize that life has offered you an opportunity to expand your resilience and if you need to say something snarky to life for that, go right ahead.

Sinners, Saints and Mental Shortcuts

Heaven and Hell
Every day I drive past the Methodist church in my town. Of the six churches in town, (yes, six- I live in New England) it is not the most beautiful, but I look forward to passing it nonetheless. Why? Because this church has in its congregation (and/or employ) a playful individual who is always putting up inspiring little sayings on the Church sign.

Several weeks ago the sign read “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” The quote is from Oscar Wilde, but its literary origins are less important than the message and the location.

When I drove past the sign the first time, I was not familiar with the quote but its simplicity and kindness struck me. In our lives we are quick to judge others and, at times, ourselves.   We place labels, easily categorizing individuals and situations. Part of this is the result of using what psychologists call heuristics- mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions and problem solve when we are faced with incomplete data. We rely on these shortcuts, basing decisions off of past experience and impressions.   Although efficient, these heuristics do not guarantee the best or even accurate decisions and assessments.

Using heuristics, we make assumptions about people we see. We categorize them as hard-working or lazy, virtuous or morally compromised and a million other shortcuts we have in our minds. We encounter them in a moment and having made a quick judgment, we see that judgment superimposed over the individual’s past and future. In this way we see an individual as born a particular way and living in the same manner until their death.

Of course, we know this is not true when we stop to think about it. But part of the point of heuristics is that their use means we are not really stopping to consider at all. In this way, our perceptions of others are incomplete, and if we are not careful, risk ossifying. We risk freezing someone in a single moment in time, or defining them perhaps, by their worst moment.

We do this to ourselves as well. We often believe that the way we have done things in the past is the only way we can do things. We let past behaviors, misdeeds and achievements define us. We justify unethical behavior in the present by coasting on earlier honesty. We discount current success, acutely feeling inadequacies from failures in our past. We begin to feel that we cannot change- that “we are who we are” however incomplete or biased those assessments may be.

Oscar Wilde’s quote points to the possibility of redemption- the most radical type of transformation. It asks us to see beyond a momentary mental shortcut and see the long arc of a life and the many choices that allow us to redefine ourselves over and over again.

I liked seeing the quote on the church’s sign. In a time when religions are often strident in their denunciations of the “sinner” but uninterested in helping those in need, the placement of the quote at a Church is welcoming. It is a recognition of the ways in which everyone we meet is merely at one moment in their journey and that the trajectory of that journey is not always discernable.

So wherever you are on your journey, know that the choices you make can continue or alter your path. You and the people around you are not frozen. We all have pasts and we all have the opportunity to change our futures.

Life Lessons from Children’s Books Part II- Mole and the Baby Bird

Mole and the Baby bird

I love giving books as baby presents. Long after the adorable onesies and outfits have been outgrown, the books remain. In addition to the twenty copies of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar that we received when my son was born, we also got a copy of Mole and the Baby Bird– a beautiful story by Marjorie Newman. With a sweet narrative and gentle drawings, Newman and illustrator Patrick Benson tell the story of young mole who finds an abandoned baby bird and adopts it.

Mole responsibly cares for his pet bird despite the admonitions of his parents that it is not a pet bird, but a wild one. When the bird begins to fly, Mole builds a cage for it, not wanting it to fly away. The bird is sad. Mole is sad and his parents are sad. His parents tell him the bird should be free.

Up until this point, all the pictures in the books are small and framed by white space on the page. Then, Mole’s grandfather takes him on a walk- allowing Mole to walk in open fields- and the illustrations suddenly take over the whole page. The reader feels as Mole does- “I’m flying” or “nearly,” as grandpa says. Mole, standing on a hillside with a bird’s eye view, suddenly understands his bird. Having experienced the freedom and openness of the field, Mole returns home and sets his bird free “because he loved it. Then he cried.” But we are told that the “next day Mole went into the forest. He saw his bird flying, soaring, free. And Mole was glad.”

The story can clearly be understood as an object lesson in “If you love someone, set them free.” But I think there is a more subtle lesson in the book- and one that is important for parents, friends, teachers, and coaches alike. Mole cannot hear what his parents tell him. It is not real for him and he cannot quite get out of his own perspective and find another way of viewing the situation. It is mole’s grandfather who, without saying a word about the baby bird, is able to help Mole do the right thing.

By allowing Mole to experience what it means to be a bird, Mole’s grandfather lets Mole come to the realization himself. It is only when Mole is empowered to discover things on his own, that he is able to grow.

Too often as parents we want to protect our children. As friends, we are often convinced of the right way of doing things. As teachers we want to instruct our students in the correct way to learn. And sometimes as coaches we have wishes for our clients. We want to tell these people that we care for the right way to do things and keep them from feeling hurt or pain. We want to teach them the lessons where it is safe. But when we do this, we deny them the opportunity to learn it for themselves.

In the story, Mole’s grandfather takes Mole on a journey of self-discovery. He allows Mole to experience the world and come to his own conclusions. In the end, Mole makes a painful and difficult decision. But it is his decision. There will not be a book focusing on Mole the adolescent or young adult complaining to his therapist that his parents made him set the bird free and that he has been resentful ever since. Mole will grow up knowing he owned his choices- however difficult they may have been- and he will be a better adult mole for it (or so I imagine).

We must learn to support our children, friends, students and clients on their journeys- helping them see their own potential and find their own paths. It is not always easy- but if we love them, we must set them free.

What Was the Best Part of Your Terrible Day?

We’ve all had that day. The one that begins with the horrible realization that you have overslept, and then proceeds to the coffee machine malfunctioning, an angry email from the boss about a project that is running 6 months behind, progresses to your getting stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam (that you usually avoid because your alarm gets you up to be on the road before the chaos of rush hour), and results in spilling drive-through coffee down your shirt. This is the day when the local sewage main ruptures and begins spewing waste into your basement which you find upon your return home as you stand in a foot of filth, calculating the cost of this to your already tight budget.

If you haven’t had that day, you’ve had your version of it. So let me ask you, what was the best part of that day?

I know, you think I am insane. You think I am one of those happy, cheerful people with framed posters of inspirational quotes against a beautiful natural scene hanging on my wall. I assure you I am not. I like sarcasm and snark and have at times enjoyed the nectar of my own despair.

But several years ago while taking a class on positive psychology (an area of study that was in many ways contrary to my default settings), I decided to take one of the practical suggestions from the literature. Because I am a mother, and have the natural authority to do it, I brought my family along for the experiment.

Every night at dinner, we go around the table and say the best part about our day. There is no skipping. There is no qualifying. There is no using the best thing as an excuse to talk about what you didn’t like. You must find one positive thing to say about your day- even if it was a terrible day.

In the beginning it was hard. I mean really hard. There were some days I struggled. There were some days when my kids informed me that there was nothing good about their day. This is when I told them the beauty of the exercise.

You see, you do not need to find one great thing about your day, or even one good thing. You must identify the best thing about your day. Sometimes the best part of a bad day isn’t great in and of itself. Sometimes the best part of the foot of raw sewage in your basement is that you found it before it was two feet. Sometimes the best part of your day is the two quiet moments you had when you entered the house and you actually took a deep breath and relaxed (before venturing into the sewage filled basement).

Over the years this has become a beloved part of our family meals. Some days there are multiple “best” parts of our days (yes- I know grammatically there should only be one thing that is the best- but I am going with the spirit of the exercise here). The exercise causes us to stop and take stock of our days and take us off automatic pilot.

And the effect goes beyond the dinner table. I now often find myself throughout the day noticing when I am enjoying my day. I notice the people around me and the joy that is in my life. Indeed, this simple exercise was the first step that helped me make changes in my life.

It turns out that noticing daily what is good in your life, as the research in positive psychology tells us, leads to greater happiness. I started to notice what gave me pleasure and what made me unhappy. I decided to do more of the things that made me happy and fewer of the things that didn’t. I decided to spend more time with the people who made me laugh and less time with those who made me angry or sad. I decided to notice that even a terrible day has parts that are good. It allowed me to shift and make changes in my life. It helped me begin a journey into a more positive way of living and indeed, eventually led me to mindfulness, coaching and meditation.

So, ask yourself, “what was the best part of my day?” Even if you are standing in sewage.

 

The Man in the Maze

necklace3

When I was twenty three, I went on a trip with my family to the Grand Canyon. While I was there I bought a necklace from a Native American woman from the Hopi tribe. The necklace depicts a man entering a maze. I was told that the maze and the man within it, are a metaphor for life. It is an image and idea that is common to many Native American tribes, each with a slightly different understanding of it.

The explanation given to me was that the maze represents life as journey. We spend our lives in the maze, through twists and turns we often feel lost. We want to get out of the maze- to reach the end. What we do not realize is that the end of the maze is actually death. Life is the maze.

At twenty three I loved the symbolism. I was embarking on a new journey, entering grad school, and I thought the metaphor of the life as a maze was fitting. At the time I bought the necklace, I think I thought of life as a journey and that I was entering a new phase of my life.

Years later, the symbolism is still important to me, but today it means something different. Today, I understand more fully the ways in which life truly is a maze. I am several iterations of my career beyond where I was at twenty-three. I have had two children, one of whom has had significant health issues and learning challenges. I have lost friends to illness and violence, seen friends’ marriages crumble and watched as life challenged those I love.

I have also known the extraordinary joy of motherhood, the love and support of a strong marriage, the resilience of my children. I have experienced the excitement of remaking myself and discovering new aspects of who I am. I have witnessed the incredible strength, determination and grace of those who have suffered losses and faced heartbreaking challenges. I have seen love bloom after the devastation of divorce. I have been awed by beauty, great and small, and the diversity of the human experience. Which is to say, I have traveled in the maze- with all of its variation.

I love the message of the man in the maze. Too often we spend our lives believing that if we can just get through this one thing, everything will be OK. If we can make it out of the maze, our lives will be wonderful. But for me (at this moment) the symbol means that there is no leaving the maze. If I make it through one part of the maze, if I turn the corner, I will simply arrive in another section of the maze. Perhaps it will have fewer twists and turns, but it is the maze nonetheless.

Life is the maze. It is the twists and turns; to borrow a phrase, it is the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I will not spend my life waiting to exit the maze, waiting for things to get better. I will fully live and experience the journey, knowing that not all of it will be fun.

The maze is a journey, an adventure, a voyage into oneself and the unknown. You cannot escape the maze for a better life. It is your life. You can only choose the path you take and what you learn along the way.

I do not know what the symbolism of the maze will mean to me in twenty or thirty years. I only know that the accumulated wisdom of my time in the maze will have affected and altered me. My understanding will have been transformed by further living. I will not hope for an easy path- only the wisdom and courage to grow and evolve in the maze.

Six Ways to Know You are with the Right Person

Love is in the air- or so all the commercials tell us.  Retailers sell us love and Hollywood and music sell us an image of what love should look like.  Not surprisingly, giant corporations might not be the best place for advice on our love lives.  So, if the flowers, the chocolates, and the diamonds are not the ideal way to tell if we are with the correct person, what is?  I offer six components to finding the “right” person (with the obvious stipulation that love comes in as many forms as there are people in the world.)

  1. The right person is the one you have fun with out on the town and at home on the couch. Valentine’s Day is all about going out and having an expensive night on the town. Commercials and popular culture tell us that romance and love are about excitement and glamor.  But long term intimate relationships may involve a lot of time just snuggling up at home.  You should be able to spend time with your partner wherever you find yourselves.
  2. The right person is the one, not without whom you could not live, but who has given you the strength to handle anything- including their absence. So often we think of love as the feeling that you could not go on without the other person.  There certainly is that kind of love.  But that love is not sustainable long term.  That kind of love consumes you as certainly as fire consumes kindling- hot, but depleting.  Lasting love is about a person who helps you find your own strength. You would, of course, prefer to be with your partner, but you know that you are stronger for having known them.  Their gift to you is a love that strengthens you as an individual as opposed to one that diminishes you.
  3. The right person is not only the one who holds your hand in public, but holds your head when you are throwing up. Romantic walks on the beach or holding hands at sunset are beautiful things. They are memories that you will treasure.  But life is composed of terrible times as well.  You will inevitably feel sick or weak (emotionally or physically.)  It is in those moments that you see the strength of your relationship. Is this person going to be there when times are tough as well as when you are flying high? The person who puts a cold cloth on your forehead when you are sick is probably going be able to handle life’s ups and downs.
  4. The right person is the one who is not afraid of your growth, but encourages your growth and grows along with you. If you are lucky enough to be in a long term relationship with another person, you will find that over time life changes you. This change, hopefully in the form of personal growth, is almost inevitable.  Couples “grow apart” all the time.  The right person is committed to helping you become the best version of yourself.  With any luck that person will grow along with you, increasing your compatibility.  It is not a sure thing- but it beats resenting the other person for their personal evolution.
  5. The right person is the one who knows all your deepest secrets and would never use them against you. If you trust your partner, you should be able to tell them your secrets and fears.  Moreover, intimacy means learning the good as well as the not so stellar qualities of your partner.  Being intimate with another person is about vulnerability and therefore, must also be about safety.  You need to know on some level that your partner will not use your weaknesses against you.
  6. The right person is the one who makes you laugh. They say that laughter is the best medicine.  It’s true.  Sometimes life is so absurd, or even so heartbreaking, that laughter is the only thing that will get you through.  The right person is the one who can make you laugh when you are happy, stressed or down. The right person can help you laugh at yourself and is open to being laughed at as well. Laughter doesn’t make hard times go away, but it can make those times bearable.

So, this Valentine’s Day, ask yourself if the person with whom you are sitting is the right person for you.  If they are, you are truly blessed. If they are not, it’s time for a change- either within the relationship, or moving on.

The Storms of Life

As another winter storm bears down on New England, I engage in my pre-storm ritual: obsessively reading weather reports and blogs.  I love weather.  I love storm watching. I feel (despite much evidence to the contrary) that if I read everything I will know what the future holds. I will be able to predict what will happen and where. I will be prepared.

Of course, I am not. Meteorology may be a science but it is clearly not an exact one. Every storm teaches me that the future is unknowable, and therefore uncontrollable. My constant reading aside, the weather will do what it plans to do. Rain/snow lines will shift, low pressure systems will unexpectedly move in and my day will be affected in ways I hadn’t planned.

In short, the weather is just another area of my life over which I have very little control. The career I planned in my twenties is very different than the one I have now. The marriage I imagined as a child bears little resemblance to the one in which I happily find myself. The beautiful children I have today are very different than the ones I daydreamed about as I held my hand over my swollen belly all those years ago. What happened? Life.

All the preparation in the world, all the good advice, all the self-help and parenting books, could not prepare me for the ways that life intervened. I could not have predicted the ways that love, economics, ambition, violence and illness would affect the trajectory of my life.  All the reading and planning could not have prepared me for the ways in which life would alter and change me- shifting priorities, values and beliefs.

Control is an illusion.What mattered more along the way was knowing myself and being open to learning more.When life challenged me, my willingness to adjust, go with the flow and when needed, set limits, allowed me to grow as a person- to not only survive, but thrive.

We focus a lot in our society on being prepared. And preparation is important. Too often though, we focus on the wrong kind of preparation. We prepare for life’s storms never realizing that forecasts change and that the storm we prepared for is seldom the storm that arrives. We cling to dogma and ideas about the way things should be instead of looking within to build strength to find our own truths.

What I have learned is that flexibility and humility are my lifelines; knowing what I can and cannot control and learning to ask for help when I am tossed in the waves of life’s hurricanes.

I suppose that I like to watch storms because it provides me with an illusion of control. But I know now it is an illusion. I know that I can no more control the storms of my life than the storms in the Gulf Stream. But with the weather I can pretend. So, today I’ll buy the loaf of bread and the gallon of milk and enjoy watching the storm, if and when it hits.