“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung
When life gets complicated and messy, sometimes it’s easier to give up, make excuses about not having a choice, or cast aside aspirations and goals. After all, human behavior is unpredictable, especially when factoring in unexpected obstacles, disappointments, tragedies, pain and misfortune. Having the strength and vision to cultivate resilience, on the other hand, helps make life not only more interesting, but much more satisfying as well.
I’d hazard to say I know something about building resilience, having endured more than a few rather extraordinary experiences that could just as well have caused me to fall into hopelessness and despair.
Losing a parent and trying to find a reason to live.
Undoubtedly the biggest tragedy I went through happened when I had just turned 13. My father died from a massive heart attack, perishing within minutes while at work at his factory job. The light of my life, the perpetual optimist, a man who lived life to the fullest despite being told when he was a boy that he wouldn’t live past his 20s, my father taught me that life is what you make it, not what happens to you.
Losing him at such a vulnerable stage in my life did set in motion a protracted period of grief. I felt lost, even wondered if I somehow contributed to his demise. I consoled myself with memories of how robustly he attacked life and how he motivated me to do the same. Just the week before he died, we laughed and enjoyed the thrills of a roller coaster ride at the amusement park. He knew I was afraid of heights and wanted me to conquer my fear and experience the exhilaration of rocketing along in the car, hands clenching the safety bar, screeching in surprise and glee all along.
In the coming years, I often heard his voice in my head telling me that I could do anything, be anything I wished. All I had to do was work hard for it and keep at it, no matter what obstacles I encountered.
Somehow, I found a reason to live. I did bounce back and found I possessed a strong desire to stand up for myself, to follow my dreams, to keep going despite disappointment, failure and pain and to help others as much as I can.
Declared dead and climbing back through a long rehabilitation.
Another personal setback occurred when I was just 20, pregnant with my second child. My mother and I were going shopping for new baby when we were broadsided by an oncoming freight train after the railroad signals failed. While my mother thankfully suffered only minor injuries, I was catapulted through the windshield and onto the tracks under the front of the train.
I was declared dead at the hospital, a tag affixed to my toe, and I was in the hallway awaiting transport to the morgue. Two attendants standing by the gurney were talking about this young woman, how she must have suffered, too bad she died. I realized they were talking about me. I was looking down at myself on the gurney, wondering what was going on. I thought I was screaming, “I’m not dead, I’m not dead.” But they didn’t hear. I kept on screaming and my toes moved. One of the attendants noticed and I was rushed back into the operating room.
I was in a coma for months, followed by many months of rehab and years of chronic pain. My daughter was born the following spring with jaundice, requiring massive transfusions. But she lived.
Was the reason I lived that I was carrying an innocent child? Was it that I still had so much to do in life that I hadn’t yet done? I often pondered why in the ensuing years. Despite several plastic surgeries to repair facial lacerations (I still have glass embedded beneath my chin), some of the scars remain today.
They haven’t deterred me. The experience of dying and coming back to life taught me that every minute I breathe is precious and not to be wasted. Whatever trials and tribulations I’ve gone through since then pale in comparison — but they’re no less valuable in teaching the value of resilience.
Overcoming persistent sadness and depression.
I raised my children alone, for the most part. My family did what they could, but I was the one who patched up scraped knees, restored calm between the two youngsters, read bedtime stories to them and tried to give them the same kind of support and encouragement I had received from my own parents.
Still, I was sad that I was alone. For a long time, I believed I was destined to forever be alone. Every good man was already taken. I was a divorced mother, not exactly a prime catch. Even my religion frowned on divorce.
I went back to school at night, got an undergrad and then the first of two master’s degrees. I met people who were interesting and fascinating, mentors who helped me determine the path I’d eventually take and supported my efforts along the way.
I also benefitted from several years of professional counseling to overcome depression and anxiety. I learned how to make good choices, restore my self-esteem and forgive myself for whatever I had done.
Years later, I did find personal happiness. I’ve been with the same man now for more than 30 years.
Not only that, but I love what I do. I’m a writer by profession and I write every day.
I don’t proclaim to have all the answers, but I do have a few suggestions on cultivating resilience for those who may find themselves in a dark and forbidding place.
- You’re more than you think you are. Maybe you just made a big mistake, lost something valuable, suffered a devastating loss and believe you don’t have it in you to keep on going. Think of some of the major hurdles you overcame in the past. This proves that you do have what it takes. You’re strong. Call upon that strength to help you bounce back. That’s resilience and it will serve you well.
- Be profoundly grateful for what you have. Even in the face of disappointment, failure and pain, you have much to be thankful for. Life is often filled with paradoxes, yet your ability to survive and thrive is nothing short of miraculous. Acknowledge this and you’ll be the stronger for it.
- Surround yourself with positive people. If you don’t want to be dragged down by the negativity of others – especially if you’re working hard to cultivate resilience – steer clear of people who have no hope, who complain and make excuses and engage in dangerous, risky behavior. Positive people lift you up and nurture your growing resilience.
- Be good to yourself. This means practicing good self-care: eating well, getting sufficient sleep and exercise.
- Take advantage of your support network when you need it. Not every day will be bright and successful. Sometimes, you’ll be down. Develop a strong support network and lean on it when necessary. Be sure to return the favor for others in the group. Pay goodness forward. This also builds resilience.
- Embrace your spiritual connection. Perhaps you don’t think of yourself as religious, or have somehow fallen away from active participation. You’re still a spiritual person and you can deepen this spiritual connection. Some of the happiest, most fulfilled and peaceful people I know are those who have a strong spiritual connection. I know prayer has helped me immensely at many turning points in my life. Call on your inner spirit, talk to your Higher Power, or embrace the universality of nature. There is a spiritual connection that each of us can tap into that bolsters and enriches our resilience.