The Spirit of Resiliency

(image via Sam Truong Dan)

(image via Sam Truong Dan)

For a moment I’d like you to consider a challenging change you’ve been through. Something that deeply tested your equilibrium. Maybe a divorce. Death. Job crisis. Health issue. Something. Call up the struggle, and its history.

In twenty years of studying and teaching on the subject of change there is one fundamental thing I've learned. Change is not a natural state but the natural state. It is the way of the universe to be in constant motion. We are either in expansion or contraction, living or dying, in love or in fear, breathing in or breathing out…but it is rarely one of stasis. Instead it is the nature of all things to be about physical and spiritual transformation. Stephen Hawkins, the great astrophysicist once said, “You can’t ask, ‘Do I want to change?’ You can only ask, ‘What does it mean to me?’ and ‘What am I going to do in response?’”

It is the response that defines who we are and the response that makes change either meaningful or not, an act of courage or not, a strengthening moment or not, and ultimately spiritual or not. My grandmother used to say, “Life is filled with difficulty, pain, heartache, struggle and change. If it wasn’t they wouldn’t have called it ‘life’. They would have given it some other name.”

Ultimately we are defined by our ability to respond to change with a quality essential for coping with the challenges of life—resiliency! In the wake of even the most horrifying experiences, research shows only a small percentage of adults become chronically troubled. More commonly, people rebound—or even eventually thrive. More than half of all people who have struggled with terrible trauma say it ultimately changed them for the better. Their refrain is something like, “I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m a better person for it.”

We often think of resiliency as the ability to bounce back, but when it comes to its spiritual nature, resiliency is more than just recovery. Instead it’s about transformation. Thus instead of bouncing back when we are fully resilient we bounce forward. Those who weather adversity with resilience are living proof of one of the paradoxes of happiness: We need more than just pleasure to live the best possible life. Those we consider wise have been tempered by adversity, and their lives positively altered by painful and even traumatic events. Ultimately there is no living without resiliency.

The poet Bo Lazloff said, “One thing you can begin taking for granted is that every person you meet who seems to have courage, dignity, compassion and humility has experienced failure and weakness and shame.” 

What then defines resiliency?

Jerry White is the founder of the Landmine Survivors Network (, a Nobel Prize winning organization dedicated to landmine eradication and victim support around the world. In 1984 while hiking in the Golan Heights, Jerry stepped on a landmine and blew off his right leg. Ten years later, he went on to found this impressive organization, as a response to what happened. Jerry has taught me that resiliency has five key steps. It is based on his experience with surviviors around the world. He is also one of the most resilient people I know.

Step one: Choose Life. In every crisis there is an inevitable choice point that eventually comes. This means willing yourself into the future and not the unchangeable past. I use the word” willing” because this is often very difficult in struggle or hardship. It is a threshold point, a decision, a commitment to life. But the truth is we choose life, every day, in every moment and every breath and--it is a choice. It is our defining moment and what propels us forward.

In every moment of adversity or crisis there is hidden within an invitation to live. It can come from a friend or family member, a song on the radio, a dream, God…but it is always there. And sometimes it’s best when it’s a strong kick in the ass.

At 42 years old, I had emergency open heart surgery. To say it tested my resilience would be a huge understatement. About two months after my surgery I was working out in cardiac rehab therapy next to Fran, a thin, seventy-eight-year-old wisp of air. Sweating under a barbell, I look over to discover that he is out-lifting me by forty pounds. I’m ready to shoot myself. Christine, my rehab therapist overhears me muttering and laughingly asks, “What’s wrong?”

“I’m tired of this!”

“Tired of what?”

“This! The exercise. The dieting. The struggle.”

“So you want a cup or a bowl?”

“Excuse me?”

“A cup or a bowl?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“For your crybaby soup! Now get back to work.”

Step Two: Face the Facts. Honestly address your suffering and loss, no matter how brutal or cruel. This means to see what is truly so, without inflation or denial. Resiliency does not mean we are always optimistic. It means we greet what comes to our gate with clarity and direct, unvarnished honesty. Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was held and tortured by the Vietcong for eight years during the Vietnam War was once asked, “Who didn’t make it out of the camps?”

“Oh”, he responded. “That’s easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We were going to be out of the camp by Christmas. And then it was going to be Easter and then the Fourth of July and then it was Christmas again.’ You know. I think they all died of a broken heart.”

This second step means, once we have chosen the path of life we now have the hard work and sometimes painful honesty of wrestling with the truth of what is so. To remember as Helen Keller said, “When one door closes, another opens. But we often look so long and so regretfully at the closed door that we do not notice the one which has opened for us.”

These moments of truth are rarely epiphanies. Generally, we get only a whisper - a faint urge. That's it. That's the call. It's up to us to do the work of discovery, to connect it to an answer that is larger than the challenge or crisis we are in. “It’s not what we know that gets us in trouble”, Will Rodgers said. “It’s what we think we know that’s not true that causes our trouble.”

Step three: Move Forward Through Action. That is, make a personal action-oriented plan for self-directed recovery. This means being responsible for your own life, and then to behave accordingly. Do something. It is a great fallacy to believe we never have options of action. There is always some course through. Some choice of empowerment.

A few years ago, a fourteen-year-old boy shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she slowly stood up, stared at him directly and said, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in a juvenile facility.

After the six months the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step by step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts.

Near the end of his three-year sentence she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up in a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home.

For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job. Then one evening she called him into the living room. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do,” he replied. “I’ll never forget that moment.”

“Well, I did,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain on earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you a job and let you live in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone, and that killer is gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and the killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room, and I’d like to adopt you if you’ll let me.”

And she became the mother of her son’s killer, the mother he never had.

Sometimes inaction is the best course to take. Most of us think that waiting is a passive state. But inaction can be very active. When we wait in patience and trust something new is being born. That’s the secret—knowing a transformation is already occurring, already happening. Patience is not a passive activity; it involves nurturing the present for the potential of what might be possible.

Step four: Connect to Others. Especially those who can offer peer support and network you to helpful resources. Research tells us that a community of like minded souls, whether our church, friends and family or an understanding network, provide the wisdom and solace needed to endure and grow. Even at our most vulnerable, our most fearful, it is in our connection to others where our humanity emerges.

I remember on September 11th witnessing the one image that will forever stand above all others. More than the planes exploding into the towers, more than people running covered in ash, more than the buildings collapsing. It was watching people, holding hands and jumping to their deaths. What a stunning reminder to us all. That their final action was one of connection and love—it stands as the most powerful testament I know to the innate human desire for support. Connection with others, especially those who are further down the road which you now walk, is one of the greatest transformational healing forces. As Steven Levine, says; “If you were going to die soon, and you only had one phone call you could make, whom would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?”

The final step is to Give Back With Gratitude. It's important to note that when we feel grateful and act from that place, it is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great. It just means we are aware of our blessings. If you only think about your disappointments and unsatisfied wants, you will be prone to staying stuck in your struggle. If, however, you're fully aware of your disappointments but at the same time thankful for the good you have been given and for your chance to live, you will increase your chances for happiness. Finally, if all else fails, remember, that if you didn't get all the things you wanted, you can still be grateful for all the things you didn't want that you didn't get.

As a practice consider the times in your life in which you have been resilient. And consider which of the five steps you are naturally good at and which need additional development. The good news is, if you are alive, then you have at some point been resilient. And if you have done it once, you can do it again.