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Resilience

By MICHAEL SHAPIRO, PhD

October 2020

So here we are, almost a year into a debacle that began as an “outbreak,” grew into an epidemic, and was ultimately declared a pandemic back in March…which now feels like an eternity ago. People have been sickened, lives have been lost, economies have tanked, lines have been drawn in the sand, and every facet of life as we know it has been completely disrupted. No one has been spared. Everyone has been impacted, emotionally if not physically.

Unless you’re super-human (or inhuman), there have been moments in which you’ve wondered whether or not the world will ever recover. When will we again get to stand in line impatiently at McDonald’s, push and shove our way through a crowded bar, or glower disdainfully at that guy in the next row at the movie theater who’s making all that noise with his candy? When will we be able to cough or sneeze in a public place without being eyed suspiciously or asked to go home for fourteen days? Will we ever regain the willpower or emotional energy to return to “life-as-it-was”…that is, if “life-as-it-was” ever wants to return to us? I believe that we will. Why? Because of an invariable and inescapably human commodity known as resilience.

Webster (who, as far as I know, is long deceased and did not have the pandemic in mind when he coined this definition) describes resilience as “…the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.”  I believe he was referring to clay, metal, marshmallows, and stuff like that; but I think you get the picture and understand how it can be applied to ourselves and our current situation. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “…the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” The American Psychological Association (my people) describe resilience as “…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.” Now we’re getting somewhere!

The point is this: resilience is a thing, and we all have it. For all its seemingly innumerable faults, humankind is—and always has been—resilient. Humanity has endured huge collective struggles, including other pandemics and natural disasters, and has lived to pick up the pieces and go home. World wars have threatened to annihilate both the species and the planet…yet here we are. This is not to minimize the loss and misery these incidents have caused; but it serves as a testimony to our collective resilience that humanity has endured, grown a little wiser (hopefully), and is still here for me to make fun of.

As your psychologist, I wish that I could offer you a pamphlet with quick and easy system for becoming more resilient during this time, maybe of a “10 Steps to Resilience” kind of thing. In the world of psychology, it is known that there are some inborn qualities that contribute to resiliency: a positive outlook, an optimistic personality, and a willingness to use tragedies as opportunities for growth. However, regardless of how much of each of these attributes you might already possess, I can tell you this: you’re already resilient, and you know it!

If you weren’t already resilient, you would have quit school immediately (if they had allowed you to) after getting sent to the principal that time in the second grade (yeah, remember that?). You would have never dated again after that pretty girl or boy rejected you in the seventh grade. You would have never sought employment again after getting fired from your first job after getting caught smoking in the parking lot during your shift (wait…you mean that didn’t happen to everyone?). You’ve been sick, and even if you haven’t recovered completely, you’ve learned to adapt. You learned a “new normal” every time you had another child, moved to a different place, had a financial setback, lost a friendship,  or endured the death of someone close to you. Although you may minimize these successes or taken them for granted, you shouldn’t: the fact that you’re still here, reading this blog, means that you’re resilient.

If you’re still not convinced of your own resilience, then take heart in this: resilience can be learned. One of my personal heroes is Dr. Viktor Frankl, who was a psychiatrist and neurologist who survived internment in various Nazi concentration camps for three years, beginning in 1942. Over that three years his father and brother died, and his mother and wife were killed. Frankl himself suffered abuse and starvation. Even so, he survived by finding meaning in what was happening to him. He tried to help despondent prisoners, and in doing so discovered that suffering can be endured if one finds in it a purpose. This culminated in his famous quote about survival (“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with any ‘how’”) and, ultimately, his amazing book, Man’s Search for Meaning (recommended reading for…well, pretty much every person on the planet). His conclusions about finding meaning in suffering have since been borne out in scientific research: according to a study in Health Psychology, people who believed that stress would kill them were 43% more likely to die than those who saw the benefits of stress, or at least believed that they could grow as a result of it!  So, to endure stress and be resilient, we need to learn how to re-frame it as beneficial rather than destructive.

Being resilient doesn’t mean being free of struggles…it means that you have the ability to struggle well. If you’re a member of the human race, you’ve certainly learned something about resilience over the past year, and you most certainly deserve a pat on the back for enduring the dumpster fire that is commonly known as “2020”. As we continue to navigate through whatever is to come, I hope that you will learn to find meaning in your trials…and hope fervently for fewer learning opportunities in 2021!