When medieval monks were asked how they practiced their faith, they would often reply, ‘By falling down and getting up.’ And there you have the whole muddled mess of being human.
~Mark Nepo, American author, philosopher, poet, teacher
Resilience is admirable, stirring, stunning, oftentimes audacious, and always awesome. I appreciate resilience. Actually, it blows me away. For example, as I wrote in a previous book about healing, “There is something about being human and yet rising above human predicaments that is inspiring. It is how we create and achieve even beyond our wildest imaginings and in the face of incalculable obstacles. So many of my heroes and heroines are those who make of their lives something significant and authentic, worthy of their time and energy and in spite of all that would wear them down or block their way.”
I first met Mark Nepo at a prayer retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The retreat was being facilitated by Wayne Muller, author of How Then Shall We Live Knowing We Shall Die, a book that so resonated with me to the very core of my being that I wanted to attend and learn more. Muller is both a minister and a psychologist, as well as the founder of Bread for the Journey. This charitable organization does a worthy job of focusing on the plight of the very poor through the development of compassionate programs that rely on small communities of local volunteers. These helpers identify a need and then provide considerable hands-on sweat equity, relying on only small donations to fund projects.
As I sat together with these beautiful beings, listening to their stories day after day, I experienced AHA! moment after moment. Their resilience touched me deeply.
Mark was at the retreat as the poet-in-residence, as well as to share the moving story of his own healing from brain cancer. I was there because I was facing my own physical challenge. I had run out of traditional options for finding relief, and I was seeking the comfort and inspiration of prayer. All forty-something participants at all ages and stages of life were there with open hearts and minds to come to terms with whatever they were coping with and to tap into their own resilience while finding greater meaning in their lives. As I sat together with these beautiful beings, listening to their stories day after day, I experienced AHA! moment after moment. Their resilience touched me deeply. Their ability to show up again and again with grit and gumption, with grace and gusto, no matter the obstacles and challenges that may conspire against them, inspired me. I recognized within each of them a very human and superhuman capacity to choose to not give up, but rather to face the future with clarity and courage no matter the current conditions. The stories told were about having the strength and wherewithal to bounce back and to even find ways to thrive after setbacks, failures, disappointments, and losses. As I witnessed their magnificent spirits, I sensed my own resilience being rekindled.
Are there stories of resilience that inspire you and sometimes give you the strength to carry on? There are so many extraordinary people who leave us awed by their capacity to not only survive and endure but to thrive and create in the throes of difficult circumstances. Christopher Reeve’s paralysis, Helen Keller’s blindness, and Beethoven’s deafness have become archetypal stories of accepting and then surmounting physical challenges. But there are also countless ordinary people who suffer illness or loss or abandonment or defeat, and ultimately move past their anger, frustration, and grief. In so doing, they demonstrate a quality of resilience that touches our hearts. Even the ordinary act of growing older with grace and dignity becomes inspirational when viewed through a certain lens.
There are times when life is laid back and easy, when we can simply savor our moments, and the blessings that fill our days are easy to count. Then there are times when life throws a hard punch to the gut and we are—at least momentarily—down for the count, wind, and will knocked out of us. The question is: What is it that you draw upon deep within you to rise to whatever occasion or challenge life sends your way? Whether it’s a financial, physical, or personal crisis, there lives within us an inner resourcefulness available if we are willing to seek it out. And, all around us, there are outer resources that we can tap into to support us along the way.
Yet what I notice in my own life, and in the lives of others, is that the first crucial step toward moving beyond setbacks and limitations is the simple acceptance of what is so. To live fully, we need to acknowledge all circumstances—ease and uncertainty, happiness and sadness, and vital well-being as well as pain. In his book, The Beethoven Factor, Dr. Paul Pearsall marvels at how Beethoven wrote and conducted his Ode to Joy after he went deaf. Pearsall reflects on what it is that allows us to thrive even in the midst of such adversity. He defines thriving as “reconstructing life’s meaning in response to life’s most destructive occurrences.” Pearsall contrasts it to the antithetical state of emotional and spiritual fatigue he refers to as “languishing.”
In what ways do you consider yourself resilient? How effectively do YOU manage the muddled messiness of being human? We don’t need to wait until times of crisis force us into action. We can learn to really thrive—rather than just survive—by continually cultivating optimism, positive energy, trust, hope, and sense of connection. It’s not just about rebounding in times of crisis. As Pearsall says, it’s about “conducting our daily life as an ode to joy.”
In order to become a “thriver,” we must step out of the frenzy of reactive “doing” long enough to be still and listen for that wise inner voice. Only then can we tap into our capacity to become appropriately responsive. Ask yourself: Which practices awaken my resilience and fortify my hopefulness? Who are the people who support and encourage me? Where are the places that heal and recharge me? What are the possibilities, alternatives, and choices that are available to me now? You might want to keep a journal to both capture and carefully consider your reflections. You’ll know you are on the right track when you experience a sense of relief, perhaps even excitement, when you’re filled up by what you decide to do rather than feeling drained.
I recently saw a documentary on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who started painting seriously after she became bedridden from an accident. She painted her pain, hopes, fears, nightmares, passions, angers, and disgust with great power and skill. She laid herself bare on the canvas. In spite of persistent and excruciating pain and a tempestuous marriage, she led an impressively productive life, leaving a legacy of some of the most riveting art I have ever seen. She could so easily have curled up in a corner and suffered away her days. That she did not is in itself astonishing. I stand in awe of her resilience and wonder, in what small ways can I learn to astonish myself each day?
Building Your Resilience Muscle
Here are some ways to develop and bolster resilience:
- Get real. Recognize setbacks and disappointments for what they are. At the same time don’t catastrophize. Every loss is not a deal-breaker.
- Learn from your experiences. Even if you “lose,” don’t lose the lesson.
- In the tough times, pay attention to your true feelings—name them and talk or write about them—and then do whatever it takes to shift to a more positive way of being. Often this requires finding meaning and purpose in and through your circumstances.
- When the stress hits the fan, find ways to think creatively and flexibly about whatever is going on. Resilience is built one expansive response at a time.
- The old adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” holds true. Don’t just curl up or cave in. Find the thing you can do, a next step you can take, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
- Don’t go it alone. Recognize and acknowledge those who have your back and your best interests at heart. Call on them. Lean on them. Brainstorm with them. Two (or three or five) heads are truly better than one.
- Take great care, especially when the pressure is on or plans fall apart. Rather than sacrificing sleep or exercise or good food choices in order to relentlessly keep your nose to the grindstone, remember to take a break. Actually, take lots of them. Get enough rest. Get revitalized. Get out in nature to clear your head. In the long run, you will reap the benefits of this thoughtful self-care.
 Minx Boren, Healing is a Journey: find your own path to hope, recovery, and wellness (Boulder, CO: Blue Mountain Arts, 2014): Page 29.
Excerpt from 16 Essays from Decades of Gratitude, Gusto, Grit & Grace by Minx Boren MCC