By Darren Chittick
As spring begins to unfold all around us, it is easy to consider resilience as “bouncing back.”
It is used in this way in much of the research available on the subject, and for many years that is exactly what I would have said resilience is. Spring, in the context of the winter that precedes it, is the return of life as we knew it. The grass becomes green again, dormant roots send forth life that breaks through the once frozen soil, and seeds that dropped to that same soil last fall explode their potential.
This is the resilience of nature.
In the context of personal growth and development, though, resilience is perhaps better understood as “bounding forward.” It is those next steps after a transformative experience that lets us know how resilient we are, and we can learn to become more resilient with practice.
I learned from my dear friend Judith Carson the story of Nan and Gary, who live in Wisconsin. Some years ago, their son Chad was engaged and preparing for his wedding to his young fiancé. Chad was only 24 at the time, and his fiancé was about the same age. During this time, something happened in this Chad’s life that we can’t fully grasp from our vantage point. We might, if given enough time, find some clues, but we’ll never find enough to really understand unless we’ve stood in his situation. And, without really being able to understand why he did so, Chad took his own life.
For those who have lost someone to suicide, this is a pain and a confusion you can understand. You know what it takes to find your way back to your feet, get some semblance of balance, and start walking forward again. You know also, and all of us can imagine to some degree, that this is a time that you need others to lean on. And, those others need to be folks with the know-how to really support you.
Nan and Gary were doing their best to scrape the pieces of their lives back together when they got news that Loraine, Chad’s fiancé who had only been seeing her family doctor in the wake of this tragic loss, had taken her life as well. How can we even begin to comprehend the absolute collapse that must have followed this. In her telling of the story, Judith said they “wandered in the wilderness for several months.” Nan and Gary were spiritual folks, and, as such, they spent time in prayer as part of the work of being the survivors of two such incredible losses.
During their wandering, they saw how far their spirits had fallen.
They recognized what it meant to be left utterly broken, and they recognized a call for love rising up from their lives that they knew others in the same situation must feel as well. They heard and answered that call through bereavement groups for survivors, a monthly newsletter that they write, holiday gatherings that help survivors through times when the absence of their loved ones is especially acute, and by bringing experts in from all over the country to present at workshops that they host. They’ve been doing all of this for free for the last 12 years while also working full-time jobs to maintain their lives.
This is resilience.
This couple came back from an unimaginable loss transformed. They didn’t just bounce back to who they had been. How could they? Life could never be the same. Instead, they found a way to not only live in the wake of such loss, but to live more fully even when there was a strong chance that they might have never recovered at all.
While I don’t know this family, I know something about them. I know that they didn’t begin to develop what I’m going to call “spiritual fitness” after the tragedy had struck. These are folks who were practicing for a long time. They had built strong, resiliency muscles that allowed them to get back up.
What the experts tell us is that, while many of the things in our lives that require us to be resilient look merely like change, what we’re really dealing with is loss.
We lose the familiar, comfortable or not, even while we stretch to embrace the beauty that such a release can bring us. It’s not a fear of change, then, it is a fear of loss that requires our dedication to develop resiliency. In Nan and Gary’s story, it is very clear that they were absolutely immersed in loss. In other situations, it is not so clear.
While it’s obvious, it’s important to remember that the one constant in our experience of this walk on the Earth is change. Our spiritual practice does not negate change. Instead, it empowers us to respond when that change comes. From a study performed by the US Military called the Total Force Fitness for the 21st Century, came a concept called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) that included work in resilience. In that work, the CSF includes, “Resilience is not invulnerability, not perfection, not isolation from all risk. Resilience of the human spirit is the capacity to bring out the best in the worst of times.”
Nan Henderson, an expert in the field, lists some personal resiliency builders like building strong relationships, being of service to others, using good life skills like good decision-making, assertiveness and impulse control, maintaining a sense of humor, maintaining a positive view of the future, recognizing our self-worth as something innate-not something earned, and by encouraging our own creative expression.
You may find within these much of what comes with your own practice and the community in which that practice takes place. Given the impetus, you could create a list of strengths you have built in each of these resiliency builders.
When faced with the worst of times, walking out of the winter of life where everything seems dead, you can slowly begin to breathe again into the experience of that which abides deep within you as it breaks through the once-frozen soil of your life.
The seeds of practice planted long ago begin to explode their potential, and you become empowered to stand up again. This is but the next step of life, and you have an opportunity for transformation that will invite you again to bound forward.
Say “YES!” to this invitation. You are resilient by nature.
(This has been adapted by the author from a Sunday morning message he delivered at The Church Within.)
Darren Chittick is the pastor of The Church Within, a Sensei at Broad Ripple Martial Arts, and resists calling himself an artist even though he does dedicate time to making art. He and his husband grow food in their yard in Indianapolis, IN and live with two seemingly-immortal cats. Hear recordings of him teaching on Sunday mornings at thechurchwithin.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: Ty H Phillips