Resilience is one of the great puzzles of human nature. Whether in the cancer ward, the battlefield or the boardroom, it determines who succeeds and who fails. During my recent hiatus from blog writing, it struck me that the ugly events of the past two years – the pandemic, humanitarian crises, increasing division, anger, violence and volatility – have made a heightened understanding of resilience more important than ever. Resilience is the capacity to persevere through conditions of hardship and enormous stress. My thoughts follow and I invite you to share yours in the comments section.
Various studies suggest almost 90% of us will experience at least one traumatic event in our lives. Some, of course, will have many more. How we handle those adverse circumstances defines us. The resilient grow stronger and wiser. They convert severe misfortune into personal growth and opportunity, develop an uncanny understanding of the plight of others and acquire an enhanced sense of the human condition. The have healthier relationships, greater self-awareness and superior emotional balance and they appreciate life for what it is. They invariably find genuine purpose and set their course on a more meaningful journey for the remainder of their days.
Resilience is the learned ability to bend without breaking. It’s staying true to one’s moral compass despite the difficulties and taking full responsibility for our lives. The quality of living is entirely a consequence of the choices we make. While chance largely decides what happens to us, we decide how to deal with it. We can choose to either be a victim of fate or take command of our ship. We can confront rather than avoid hardships, reframe unpleasant events into new possibilities and select character over convenience. We can look for the silver linings in troubling circumstances, accept what cannot be changed and try our best with whatever resources we have to improve our lot with grace and dignity.
Optimism ignites resilience; adversity fuels it. Optimism is an inner confidence that things will get better with enough effort and creativity. It’s knowing how to cut our losses and turn our attention to what can be solved. But that optimism must never distort our sense of reality. Excessive, unbridled hope can prove detrimental, even dangerous. Realistic optimism isn’t seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses; it’s gathering relevant information, acquiring needed skills, setting goals and developing plans to achieve them. It’s resolving conflicts and learning. Realistic optimists control their lives. Albeit at times emotionally wrenching, they possess a hard-nosed, grounded and sensible view of what really matters.
How can you become more optimistic? Whenever the worst happens, strive to focus on the positives. It may not be easy but it’s quite doable. Ask yourself the unnatural, counter-intuitive question: “What’s good about it?” Look forward to what the future might hold, not backwards with regret. There are always valuable lessons to be learned if we take the time to find them. (In some of my courses, I call this Reversing Your Point of View.) Cultivate a sense of humour that enables you to make light of your mistakes rather than succumbing to the darkness and bitterness of failure.
More than anything else in our makeup, humour enables us to rise above hardship. It triggers perspective and energizes endorphins (our feel-good chemicals) that override negative thinking. It broadens our experiential frames and fosters flexibility of mind and exploration. It enables us to zero in on the real meaning of our behaviour, to call it into question and point us toward contemplating better choices. It helps us face our fears without denying them. It reduces inner tension, diminishes depression and alleviates the discomfort we feel about our errors.
The resilient are lifelong learners, continually seeking ways to strengthen their mental acuity to recognize and seize opportunities when they arise. This enables them to be flexible in how they think about and respond to challenges. Whether in children, survivors of family breakups or businesses that come back from the brink, an increasing body of evidence shows how resilience is acquired. They use their emotions to fuel courage rather than despair, shift their focus from one coping strategy to another and diligently search for the life-altering insights to be found in adversity.
Resilience is a skill, like just about everything else in life that makes a difference. The ability to distinguish reality from fantasy is closely linked to the capacity to find the lessons that lie within terrible events. Some, under duress, throw up their hands and cry, “Why did this happen to me?” They see themselves as unjustifiably wronged. The resilient know their suffering is unfortunate but a necessary avenue to finding new meanings for themselves and their significant others. They know everything can be worse. They don’t say, “Why me?” They say, “Why not me?” The resilient use their mishaps as mortar for building the bridges that make the present manageable and the future possible.
The resilient have an uncanny ability to improvise. They make do with whatever is at hand, to find feasible and occasionally brilliant solutions without the obvious tools or resources. Some call this inventiveness or tinkering – the talent to muddle through, morph challenges into workable solutions and imagine creative alternatives and possibilities. I call it pragmatism: having the smarts and grit to prevail when others are confounded, disenchanted and defeated.
If change is the constant of life, why not use it to change for the better? Accept the inevitability of failure, no matter how frustrating or painful. Don’t be a victim – let go of the past and live for a more exciting future. Don’t fight battles you can’t win. Avoidance and denial stifle growth. Recalibrate: set new goals, then act on them. Frame your misfortune in personally understandable ways that focus on new beginnings. Bravely acknowledge the obstacles we all face in an increasingly troubling world. View setbacks as a wake-up call to action. Then engage in problem-solving.
Acceptance of our misfortune is not giving up. It’s the genesis of a realistic appraisal of our problems and a stimulus for pragmatic decision making. Adversity keeps our ego in check and builds a tougher skin. It’s never about the falling down; it’s figuring out how to get up and move on. The resilient are survivors – they endure their hardships and grow from the experience. They face their daunting circumstances with a healthy perspective and robust staunchness. They find meaning in failure. And they improvise personally relevant solutions almost from thin air.