This past month has been eventful and unusual. My sister Kathy and I spent a weekend cleaning out our mother’s home in order to rent it out, and two weeks later we both flew to Washington to surprise our dad for his 70th birthday. These two events have provided a backdrop for my reflection here on living a full life, making the most of what you have and moving forward rather than focusing on the past.
Our mother has survived two bouts with cancer and had, just a few years ago, recovered enough to move from nursing home to assisted living and then back to independent living in her own home.
But a series of strokes last fall sent her back to square one. She was unable to do more than lie in bed and moan for the first few days upon her arrival. But since then, she has made great strides. She is now known in the home as the one who involves others in activities, welcomes people to the home, and is quick-witted and full of humor. When given the choice between therapy and activity, she always chooses therapy, even though it is hard and demanding.
Our father, the recent Republican presidential primary candidate, is known for his visionary thinking, eternal optimism and focus on hard work. After losing twice before winning his congressional seat in 1978, he went on to lead the 1994 Contract with America and has continued to bounce back after setbacks that might have kept other men down.
Resilience is what these two people have in common.
Resilience is defined as the “ability to bounce back after encountering difficulty,” in the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012). They interviewed survivors of severe stress (prisoners of war, victims of terrorism, etc.) and reviewed and analyzed scientific research.
They conclude that there are 10 factors to resilience: “Optimism: belief in a brighter future; facing fear: an adaptive response; moral compass, ethics and altruism: doing what is right; religion and spirituality: drawing on faith; social support: learning the tap code; role models: providing the road map; training: physical and strengthening; brain fitness: challenging your mind and heart; cognitive and emotional flexibility; meaning, purpose and growth.”
Life presents challenges to everyone. What differentiates some of us from others is how we respond. Some view challenges as permanent and pervasive, and might then give up, while others see challenges as temporary and specific and as opportunities to learn and grow.
One of my mother’s favorite sayings is: “If you lay down too long, they will cover you up.” This has led her through a life of activity and has bred a constant desire to get back up.
The good news is that, according to Southwick and Charney, resilience is something that we can learn and practice throughout our lives. Part of resilience is accepting what cannot be changed, while simultaneously looking for role models from whom to learn and changing the parts of our lives over which we have control.
Very often, moving the focus from ourselves and our plight to others can change our perspective and lead to greater resilience. Think about a time in your life when you were most concerned about other people — did your own situation matter, or were you more than willing to work harder, give up sleep and drive for miles to help them out?
New parents often go through weeks, if not months, of sleep deprivation while taking care of their children. They do so willingly and without focusing on themselves. In a society when celebrities, successful business people or athletes are often feted and adored, it might seem that those of us who are mere mortals are less important. After all, how exciting is it to drop the children off at school, pay the bills and walk the dogs? But, in viewing the larger purpose of life, it might be helpful to reflect upon Southwick and Charney’s conclusion: “We need not be the swiftest or the strongest. What counts instead is that we ‘come in’ — that we develop our talents, put forth our best effort and commit ourselves to a life of purpose, growth and resilience.”