Since the publication of the first edition of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges in 2012, both of the authors have had to put their research on resilience into practice in their own lives.
Dennis Charney lost his father, and was shot last year while leaving a deli in New York City by a disgruntled former employee. After five days in intensive care, he faced an arduous rehabilitation. Both of Steven Southwick’s parents died, his sister had colon cancer, and his very athletic brother’s leg was amputated followed by a difficult recovery.
In researching this book, the authors spoke with special forces instructors, veterans who had suffered in POW camps in Hanoi, and people who survived the World Trade Center attack of 9/11. They spoke with victims of sexual assault, individuals who grew up in the Jim Crow South, and those who had lost limbs to land mines. They also spoke with people who had survived refugee camps in Sudan, and people who overcame congenital birth defects. They also did an extensive literature review on resilience – what it is, what factors are important to resilience, and how to be more resilient.
Resilience is a complex topic. The authors came up with what they call “resilience factors” based on their interviews with resilient people, but concede that the list is not comprehensive in terms of what gives us the strength and ability to come back. They include realistic optimism, facing fear, a moral compass, religion and spirituality, social support, resilient role models, physical fitness, brain fitness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and meaning and purpose in life.
Southwick and Charney examine a multitude of influences on resilience including neuroscience, epigenetics and genetics, physiology, and environment. They also put these into the context of the United States and our vulnerability in terms of resilience. Our overall lack of physical fitness, our disconnectedness with each other, and other factors are sometimes framed as a national security weakness. According to their research, about 75% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are not eligible to join the military, most commonly due to poor physical fitness, lack of high school education, and a criminal record. Our all-volunteer military comes from an ever smaller cross-section of the US.
Each chapter has an extensive list of references, so readers can do further research if they choose. The research is impressive and comprehensive, but the stories are what really stuck with me. If you need role models for resilience, this book has an abundance of them. There are famous people like James Stockdale who was the ranking officer as a prisoner in Hanoi, and Bob Woodruff of ABC news who suffered a traumatic brain injury covering the war in Iraq. There is Jerry White who lost a leg to a landmine in 1984 while hiking in Israel. His struggle to recover eventually led to his winning a Nobel Peace prize along with Ken Rutherford for their work with the Landmine Survivors Network. Just the stories of the strength and resilience of the people interviewed is worth the read. The people are amazing and inspirational. And the stories of how they were able to recover were insightful, thoughtful, and always respectful of the struggle. The authors write with both critical thinking skills and open hearts.
I am happy to have this resource. Over the years I have worked with people who suffered numerous hospitalizations in psychiatric facilities, who were repeatedly incarcerated, and who suffered physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse. I have worked with those who have struggled with severe physical injury and illness, and who were in combat in the armed forces. I have always been impressed by the resilience of not just those who were able to thrive, as the folks interviewed in this book, but also those who somehow got up each day and survived despite living in systems and environments stacked against them. I can share this valuable resource with them.
There are two appendices to the book. One is on posttraumatic stress disorder. In pondering the section, I came to realize that there is a high probability that two of the people I was very close to as a child most likely had some degree of PTSD, one from war and one from childhood trauma. This book is enlightening on many levels.
The other is on community resiliency. I will be sharing this with our local community emergency response teams. All too often we are complacent, don’t plan ahead, or don’t do what is needed to be prepared for the crises in our lives that sooner or later come to be. This book is an excellent resource to help us all become more resilient in our lives. The final story is of a small teenaged boy in a track race in the Special Olympics. The young boy’s attitude and his words will leave you with a smile and feeling moved and inspired.
Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges
Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney
Cambridge University Press
Softcover, 250 pages