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.

Avoiding the Empty Calories of Chocolate Easter Eggs

When I was a child, a neighbor who was a devout Christian came over to our house and sat distraught, talking to my mother. She had just returned from the grocery store and found it filled with chocolate bunnies and cream eggs for Easter. She said to my mother, “we, as Christians, have already lost Christmas to commercialism, if we lose Easter too, our religion is in serious trouble.”

What my neighbor was decrying was the substitution of commercialism for content- of surface for substance. When advertisers come in to our lives and try and sell back to us our own experiences, they diminish them. Without question Easter eggs and chocolates are part of many families’ memories of the holiday. But they are not, and never have been, the sum total. The holiday has deep religious significance. Not everyone has religious connections to the holiday, but for them, Easter may also be about time with family and perhaps, the joy of Spring- things similarly not captured by commercials.

The problem is that when advertisers enter the dialogue, they are seeking to place their products at the center of our experience. Sadly, in our world of constant media bombardment, it is easy to lose what is authentic in our own lives. It is easy to let the televised version of events take the place of our own memories- swapping symbolism and commercialism for real connection.

Whether advertisers are painting a picture of the holidays, or love, or fun, or happiness, their aim is always the same- to make us buy things. Their goal is to turn our desire for authentic connection into purchasing. They want to sell us the facsimile and we are all too often willing to buy. But of course, one cannot really buy love or happiness and true religious experiences cannot be purchased at a store.

Our culture is all about convincing us that we do not have enough and that the next purchase will somehow make us whole. We are told that “retail therapy” is the way to cure our ills- when really such therapy results in greater credit card debt, more clutter in our homes and the feeling of emptiness that follows the realization that this purchase has not actually changed our situations in any meaningful way.

For, like the chocolate bunnies and creams eggs, the purchases are devoid of nutritional value. They offer us nothing that can nurture our souls and our lives. This year, resist the Easter Bunny and instead embrace what is real and meaningful in your lives. Find your spiritual center, embrace a loved one, take a walk in nature. Celebrate what is authentic and true in your lives and you will find it is a better therapy than what advertisers would have you purchase.

Exodus from the Narrows

At this time of year the Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Passover in which we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jewish people escaped from slavery and became free.

Although some read the text literally, there are many others who read the story metaphorically. The Hebrew word for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” translated literally as “the narrows.”

What does it mean to be in the narrows? And what does it mean to leave the narrows to become free?

There are many types of Mitzrayim; of “the narrows”. Sometimes the narrows are a physical location in which we find ourselves trapped. Sometimes the narrows are about the relationships in our lives and the constraints they put upon us. But sometimes our Mitzrayims are internal- a narrowness of heart and mind that squeezes and confines us. Leaving such narrowness is indeed a struggle of epic proportions- an Exodus that each one of us may at some point need to embark upon.

Every year Jews are commanded to retell the story of the Exodus, to recall the confinement of Mitzrayim and expansiveness of freedom. It is a holiday that every year invites its participants to feel as though they themselves left Mitzrayim.

I would suggest that the invitation is not merely to remember the Exodus, but to embark upon it. Leaving behind the narrowness in your life can be quite difficult. It can feel like a long and arduous journey. But the rewards of the journey are worth it.

Imagine what it would feel like to escape the narrows of your life; to live in a way that is expansive and open. Imagine what it would feel like to live in a way that honors your values and makes you feel truly free.

In each one of us is the potential for such an Exodus. Our Mitrzayims and our freedoms may be different, but each one of us holds the potential for a meaningful Exodus story, one in which we go from the narrows to more open vistas.

Resolutions vs. Commitments

It’s coming. You know it is- maybe this week, maybe next week, but by February, you know it will have arrived- the moment when you decide that your New Year’s resolution is just not worth it.

One of the problems is that you made a resolution and not a commitment. Resolutions are decisions you make to do or not do something. Commitments are about being dedicated to something larger, whether it is yourself, your community, or a value.

In coaching, I ask my clients to make commitments, not resolutions. Commitments are firm and binding and at times, require sacrifice. But commitments give our lives meaning. There are many different types of commitment. Commitment to our values invests our lives with meaning. Commitment to ourselves fills our lives with integrity and purpose. Commitment to our families strengthens our bonds. Commitment to our work increases productivity and satisfaction. Commitment to the Divine infuses our lives with the sacred. Commitment to our communities engages us in the collective and brings us together.

So this year, throw away your resolutions and start making commitments instead. The stakes are higher but the rewards are better. If you feel yourself faltering, enlist the help of friends, loved ones or a coach to help you hold to your commitments.