Resilience Revisited: Personal Courage, Nurtured By Others

     “We Shall Overcome!”

     These stirring words of hope and resilience spoken by Martin Luther King still ring true in speeches and song today.

     As you know, the term ‘Resilience’ refers to the ability to overcome significant adversities which may occur in one’s life. You yourself may have suffered early life difficulties, or experienced painful setbacks, losses or traumas during your lifetime. If so, the fact that you are reading this indicates that you’ve overcome challenges and are resilient.

      I first learned of resilience through my father’s life: He grew up with poverty and anti-Semitism in a shtetl in Europe, faced similar hatred as a young immigrant, yet became a hard-working, responsible husband, father and citizen, who cared deeply about people and all things cultural. Another spur to my early interests was the autobiography “Manchild in the Promised Land” in which African-American Claude Brown described his violent early life on the “mean streets” and in jails, culminating in his career as a lawyer, author and teacher. Many other people I have since met have shown their resilience to be singularly important in their lives.

      That word appears so frequently now in pop-culture books, lectures and even advertising that it might seem overused and facile. But resilience is a profound and meaningful concept, which includes fortitude, adaptability, resourcefulness, hardiness, resolve, perseverance, optimism and hope. That seems like a lot to ask of any individual, and yet it describes most of us: We have all suffered circumstances which brought sadness or despair, and yet we’ve somehow managed to recover our health and vitality after these crises.

     We have the capability of rebounding from adversity, of coming back to our ‘steady state’ or even stronger. There is a natural physiological process of recovery in our bodies called “homeostasis,” which is the innate propensity of cells to return to a state of equilibrium after having been chemically or virally disturbed. This same process of ‘returning to stable balance’ applies to our personalities and moods: We usually recover from dire personal events and painful aftermaths, and return to inner states of equilibrium, sometimes stronger for the experience. 

    In the yin and yang question of whether adversities hurt us or spur us to overcome, there are countervailing thoughts:

    1) Research has shown that severe Adverse Childhood Experiences (“ACE”) – like abuse, deprivation, abandonment, severe illness, or poor education – can lead to serious consequences in physical and mental health in later life. Similarly, traumatic events in adulthood can cause stress-related emotional and physical disorders.

    2) We learn from other studies, however, that permanent scarring is not an inevitable aftermath of trauma. When we study the victims of early or recent emotionally traumatic events, we learn that many manage to overcome terrible suffering and go on to lead fulfilling, productive and generative lives. In a word, they exhibit Resilience.

     I have been fortunate to know and work with many estimable people who faced severe challenges, overcame them and ultimately flourished. I keep a private “Pantheon of ‘Resilients’” with the names and stories of these inspiring individuals. Here are a few examples:

   The gifted high school senior, accepted on scholarship to Ivy League college, severely injured by a drunk driver, spent three years in neurosurgical and rehabilitation centers, was inpatient psychiatry for severe OCD and depression, now married to a musician…

   The child physically abused by parents, placed in a series of difficult foster homes, now a professor with a family…

   The physically-challenged since birth girl, was told by doctors she’d never have children and by teachers to forget about higher education, now a thriving professional, married with children…

   The orphaned holocaust survivor, arrived here uneducated and penniless, now a productive, caring family man…

   The boy with severe learning disabilities, his mother with bipolar disorder and father gone, now a teacher of special needs children…

   The young girl who was raped and kidnapped, suffered from PTSD, now a married vocational counsellor…

   The boy raised in the barrio with armed gangs, heavy drug use, imprisoned twice, returned to high school, then college and grad school, geologist, now a caring grandfather…

     The child in World War Two, witnessed the murders at home of both parents by soldiers, ran away and lived in a forest for two years, now a successful businessman with a family…

      The young family with five children, escaped from Vietnam at war’s end, placed in a refugee camp for two years, then emigrated here, all the children graduated from college…

     I could go on…

     These snippets make the process of resilience sound easy, but the journeys are often long and arduous, involving ‘blood, sweat, and tears.’ Agonizing setbacks can occur during the years of overcoming but their labors and resilience ultimately lead to new levels of existence.

      I see these estimable individuals as “thrivers” as opposed to survivors, and I deeply admire their courageous ‘heroism,’ but they don’t see themselves as heroes, as they are humble and deeply appreciative for their remarkable life trajectories. They know that they succeeded in part because of others and they are profoundly grateful for their help in overcoming challenges and accomplishing their goals. 

     Americans love comeback stories of heroic protagonists who overcome fears and obstacles, the “rugged individualism” of those who rebound from calamity. These make compelling narratives, but my studies of people who overcame overwhelming challenges find they often had crucial help, and that resilience does not “just happen” in a vacuum: Those who made dramatic comebacks from despair or degradation and rose to secure and fulfilling lives, received some meaningful support from at least one other person who played a key role in their recovery and renewal.

      I use the metaphor of “the Arm” to represent generous reaching out or “hugging” someone in need. Someone else is often involved in believing in the potential of the downtrodden person, and in imbuing that belief in self and resilience in that person.  The arm symbolizes caring and can be a virtual or real arm around the shoulder, but it also involves listening, or advising, teaching, supporting, encouraging, even cajoling or confronting. The extended arm might involve words, feelings or actions which “connect” and act as a spur, a needed injection of trust, support and confidence in a vulnerable person. That successful ‘arm’ engenders confidence and belief in the self.

        Perhaps you benefitted from a real or virtual “arm” extended to you by someone years ago, words of wisdom imparted to you or the influence of someone who cared for you. That person’s real or metaphoric “touch” may have stayed with you as a touchstone throughout your life. Helping words or/and actions might have come from a parent or neighbor, a teacher, doctor or shopkeeper, a coach or employer. They serve to facilitate and enable as an anchor in a storm, security and stability in difficult or scary times, and a boost in motivation and courage. You yourself may have played that very same crucial and generous “arm” role in someone else’s life. 

        The philosopher John Donne profoundly said, “No Man is an Island.” We are social beings, members of communities, and we need one another in good and hard times. Anyone who insists that he/she has no need for others in their lives is denying a basic core of humanity. Individuals need and benefit from each other’s arms, nurturance and generosity.

      The profound folk concepts of the African-American “Kumbaya” or Zulu “Ubuntu” both stress community and compassion of humanity, although they are occasionally derided by cynics as naïve. Extending the arm to another reflects an implicit social contact, which is crucial in fostering resilience. This is positive for both the helper and the person in need, a win-win situation. We can all be that special someone who strengthens the life and fortifies the resilience of someone, just as each of us can be helped by others when we are in need.

      Individual resilience at its core bespeaks a meaningful, helpful community: By being helpful to others, we enhance our own lives as well. 

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