Today’s stren identifies a skill that is closely related to enthusiasm. Resilience is the energy that enables us to bounce back from the stresses that we each encounter in our lifetime. My dictionary defines resilience as follows: “The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy;” also, “the property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape after being bent, stretched or compressed; elasticity.” Resilience is one of those essential ingredients that contribute to surviving and thriving in an imperfect environment.
We are all born with considerable resilience. Our genes have programmed behaviors throughout our history that enable us to adapt to our environment and continue the life cycle. Self-preservation is among the strongest of instincts, and we readily observe this in all life, particularly animals. One of my favorite examples of resilience is the process of learning to walk. While you may not remember your struggles to walk, you have surely watched a child falling repeatedly, then picking him or herself up and trying again. How many falls to the left, forward, backwards, here and there, with the self pick-me-ups are required before success is attained? Little or no instruction is needed; we already somehow know to keep trying, and with repetition, we make ourselves skilled walkers.
The problem is that our upbringing tends to nurture resilience to death. Instead of recognizing that mistakes and poor judgment are necessary tools for learning, we often teach the blaming-in mental action pattern - guilt and self-putdowns - that bring on a helpless/hopeless response (H/H). The H/H mental action is among the most devastating because it shuts down our energy factory. We come to assume (usually falsely) that our efforts will only be wasted, and so we stop trying and passively accept whatever fate and circumstance demand of us. The value of this stren is to recognize that just as we learn helplessness, we can also unlearn it. We can teach ourselves to turn our energy back on and rekindle the resilience whose embers were not extinguished, but remain still simmering.
During my training in psychiatry at John’s Hopkins, one of my professors was Curt Richter, who was distinguished for his studies on learned helplessness. Rodents put in a tub of water normally move about until they find safety. Experimental rodents whose motility was restrained when put to the survival test exhibited “give up” behavior and drowned. Consider the baby elephant who is restrained by a rope tied to a wooden stake driven in the ground. When the elephant grows in strength and size, it would be a simple task to pull himself free of the tether, but he does not. The resilience nature provides is extinguished by nurture.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl concluded from his experience as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II that the important ingredient in those few who survived was “meaning.” They recognized they were free to find meaning and value in living, and had a responsibility to do so. Those who saw only hopelessness lacked the resilience to survive. My sister-in-law has been working on a project to interview the survivors and families of survivors of the holocaust. I am told that resilience is among the most important qualities observed in their histories.
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