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.
These observations regarding hopelessness/helplessness help us to understand why it is so important to create many life enthusiasms that sustain meaning and purpose in our lives. We can see that the variety of enthusiasms and values to which we can direct energy is unlimited. Name any topic, item, artistic endeavor, etc. and we can find individuals who invest their energy to learn more of it. The spark of meaning is within us if we seek it and nourish it. Our search begins with the awareness that we have the freedom to assume responsibility for making choices. Above the circumstances that would limit our choice-making, we hold the human spirit of creativity. Frankl tells us we can always take a stand; our attitude is ours alone. He who has a why to live can bear most any hardship. Frankl, who had married not long before his entire family was arrested and killed in concentration camps, attributes his resilience to his love and persistent hope to be reunited with his wife, although she did not survive.
Religious leaders and philosophers through the ages have a high degree of consensus about the most powerful sources of resilience: doing service to benefit others. Mature individuals express greater enthusiasm in their acts of giving that those of receiving. Einstein suggests the life of an individual has meaning only insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Love is recognized as a powerful source of energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration to a meaningful life.
If love is indeed one of the most important ingredients in resilience, we are wise to learn what we can do to create an abundance of this force. In the next series of strens, please share with me an exploration of what love is and how we create it.