resiliency: when your house is swept clean

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

Echoing forward from the 13th century, the words of the Sufi poet whose works are considered in some circles to be “love poems to God,” this one in particular speaks to the paradox of the human condition. When a day dawns, we may have no clue what awaits us. For some, it may bring injury and disease, personal or national violence, internal or external warfare, the descent into addiction or ascent from it, the blessing of birth, and yes, for some, the blessed welcome of death.

While listening to an NPR report of what is occurring in the lives of Syrian refugees, I wondered how people could exist day after day in a state of crisis, not knowing where their next meal or shelter would come from, nor whether they or their children would fall prey to the bloody mayhem that is occurring in their country. My mind then turned to those who face devastating disease, daily abuse or PTSD symptoms as a result of previous trauma. I sent prayers for the healing of each one impacted as I was safely ensconced in my car on the way home from a chiropractor’s appointment.

Do I face challenges? Absolutely. In 1992, while living in Homestead, Florida, I experienced an ectopic pregnancy, my husband was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and we lost our home to Hurricane Andrew. In 1998, I was widowed at age 40 and raised my then 11-year-old son as a single parent. My father died in 2008. In 2010, I became an “adult orphan,” when my mother died. Personal health crises that arose in 2013, including shingles, heart attack, kidney stones and adrenal fatigue, initiated necessary lifestyle changes. And I have faced unexpected job changes that called on me to pull together my resources and regroup.

What keeps some people on their feet and moving forward, while others crumble under the pressure of life events?

Resilience is the Key

According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from “difficult experiences.”

Helen grew up in a family in which her parents modeled resilience. Both had lost their fathers at early ages. Her maternal grandfather died when her mother was 18 and her paternal grandfather passed when her father was 32.

Her father had blue collar jobs that had him up before dawn and returning at dinner time. She witnessed him going to work even when ill. She had a memory of him hitchhiking to work in a blizzard, since he couldn’t get his car out of their street. He walked the few miles to the main highway and stuck out his thumb. As a result, she learned that “you do what it takes.” It has served her well in many ways, but also has had her adopting her father’s workaholic tendencies, which impacted her health.

James learned that life is fraught with pain and tragedy. His mother died when he was five years old. His father plunged into depression and immersed himself in the bottle. He was often left alone to care for his younger sister. When his father was physically present, he wasn’t available emotionally.

James developed survival skills that had him taking on the pain of others. He chose a career as a doctor and did so despite the odds that he wouldn’t rise above his circumstances. Although he still struggles at times with the ghosts from his pasts, he has developed a tool kit of coping strategies that is as important to him as a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff are to his medical practice.

Sara didn’t fare as well. When she turned 12, her older sister was killed by a drunk driver. Her parents were so devastated at the loss of their daughter, they couldn’t see that Sara was also in anguish. She felt that her needs weren’t tended to, so she began engaging in self harming behaviors, such as cutting and burning. This behavior served a dual purpose: the first was to attempt to quell her overwhelming emotional pain, while the second was an aching plea for her parents to notice her sorrow. It took a suicide attempt for them to realize that if they didn’t want to lose a second child, they needed to gather their resources and work together as a family to heal the deep wounds that remained.

How to Develop Your Resiliency Muscles

  • Like anything we want to strengthen, practice is essential. The more we exercise our bodies, the stronger and more flexible they become. Make it a priority to do something daily to bolster your resilience.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people who encourage you. These could take the form of family, friends, mentor, sponsor or clergy. Those who have been through challenges themselves are especially powerful resources, since they have rebounded. One piece of wisdom says that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. AA touts the benefits of “hanging with the winners.”
  • Recognize that you have survived everything that has ever happened to you, since you are here to talk about it. Your record for making it through to this moment is 100%.
  • Tell your story in the written or spoken word. Sharing your experiences helps you purge emotions and can serve as an example for others.
  • Know that you are not your story. These are descriptions of events that occurred. When people identify too closely with what happened, they label themselves as victims. Remember that your history is not your destiny.
  • Re-write the tale as you want it be. You can use the words, “In the past, this was so. From now on, this is how it will be.” Since our minds are powerful, we can reframe our percepts and positively affect the outcome.
  • Be with people who support your strengths and can hold the vision with you for your recovery.
  • Read about and get to know those who are resilient thrivers. One powerful telling is Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he shares his experience as a concentration camp survivor during the Holocaust. Through his experiences, he made the determination, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Since nature abhors a vacuum, make a conscious choice about the kind of life you desire and what it is you want to replace in your newly swept house.

Sweeping photo available from Shutterstock