I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
I’m convinced that an account of a senseless accident does little to help, encourage, or inspire. But I’m learning that when it’s combined with personal vulnerability, the story can serve as a catalyst for powerful and profound interactions.I try to be as honest as possible with my audience, which usually means sharing significantly more about my mistakes and failures than anything resembling wisdom. In fact, I think people can best learn from my experiences by understanding my choices and then doing the opposite. With that in mind, here’s what I’ve discovered about resilience in the face of adversity.
Acceptance – Adversity is an unpleasant fact of life. Sometimes life dumps on us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Don’t like it, can’t change it. Complaining and blaming only delay the inevitable point at which we must recognize the reality: It is what it is.
Focus – After complaining and blaming, my next impulse involves worrying. Most of what I worry about either never happens, already happened, or really isn’t important, but I invest enormous amounts of emotional energy, time, and resources with needless worry. I invent concerns, while fully knowing that I almost never anticipate the really bad stuff anyway. Resilience requires me to redirect that wasted energy, to minimize wasted worry.
Optimism – A physical therapist once asked me to think of my injury in terms of a circle that represents the 10,000 things I could do before I fell. He cut out a piece to represent the 2,000 things I lost. Then he pointed out that I had to make a choice. I could either dwell on the 2,000 that were lost or the 8,000 that remained.
Resilience doesn’t require me to ignore what’s lost or to pretend that I don’t miss those abilities. It does require that I not allow what I cannot do to interfere with what I can do. It’s what I’ve come to call realistic optimism.
Creativity – It’s a simplistic-sounding cliché, but adversity and opportunity usually arrive arm-in-arm. Worry is negative imagination about the challenge, while creativity is positive imagination about the opportunity. Resilience requires me to creatively transform obstacle into opportunity.
Persistence – Adversity invites me to capitulate. First impressions of twenty-one years in a wheelchair involve impossibility, brokenness, and inability. It’s as though I’m programmed to respond to challenge with “I’ll never be able to …”
I’m not a big fan of Pollyanna. When life dumps on me, it’s hard sometimes to simply keep going, but resilience requires that I never give up.
Perspective – Life in the midst of the storm, whether it’s injury, disease, financial hardship, or relationship issues, can trick me into believing that every event is tragic and life altering. Occasionally I need to step back and chuckle at life’s absurdities. I don’t laugh at my disability, but I can relate numerous stories like this one in which the only rational choice is humor. I can’t take myself too seriously; I need to cultivate a healthy sense of humor.
Purpose – When I’m committed to a cause bigger than my personal concerns, it’s amazing what I can overcome. Resilience involves setting a goal and creating a plan to accomplish it.
Faith – I believe that this is the hub around which everything else revolves. I’m not necessarily referring here to “religious” faith, but I need some sort of foundation that allows me to choose hope.
Christopher Reeve had every reason to feel angry and bitter after an accident that robbed him of body, career, and eventually life. Instead of choosing despair, he chose hope and said, “Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”
Jim Wallis said it this way: “Faith allows you to hope in spite of the evidence, and then watch the evidence change.”
Which of these attributes of resilience is most challenging for you? What’s a small (or large) step you can take toward a more resilient attitude?