“Grit and resiliency, when misunderstood, lead to this notion that I’m supposed to suffer, and that there’s something noble in the suffering. That’s silly and actually creates all sorts of problems. There’s a notion of false grit, which is kind of brittle, where if something truly difficult happens to us, we tend to break…. True resiliency, true grit has the capacity to be flexible, to understand that even the worst situations are, to use a Buddhist term, workable. That is, I can learn from this experience. I can find some greater sense of connectedness and therefore grow from this. And by the way, it hurts. And to deny that it hurts is to deny my humanity. ” ~ Jerry Colonna
‘Resilience’ is a word that is all too often misunderstood or misapplied, in my opinion. I am sick and tired of seeing it used as a synonym for tough or gritty. In my experience it is something quite different.
The distinction is an important one in my mind, and is something I became aware of through my own lived experience. I do not consider myself to be particularly tough. There have been many times in my life when I have felt fragile, tender. Many times I have behaved like a softy, when I have been squeamish and cringing in response to nasty occurrences.
But I am resilient. I am the most resilient person I know. I always come back. I have so often seen the amazement on the faces of friends and colleagues when I recover from something that should have seen me down for the count. They are all the more bewildered by my feats of recovery because they know I am not tough.
Many years ago, and there can never be too many years between where I am now and this experience, I was suicidal after a long, disorientating, and debilitating bout of clinical depression. I had the note written. I had my room cleaned, ready for my landlord to take possession – I didn’t want to put him to more trouble than I could help. I went down to Melbourne Central train station and stood on the platform and waited for a train. It came. I didn’t jump. It passed by. I waited for another. I didn’t jump. It passed by. I repeated this a few times until my feet, acting of their own accord, turned around and walked me out of there. I repeated this for a few more days. Then I stopped. I hated myself for a coward. I didn’t even have the guts to do that thing right.
In time the pain passed. I don’t know why or how but it did. I could make no sense of anything. But I was still, somehow, here.
I spent years wondering just what the instinct was that made me stand still on that train platform. When I tried to talk about it to other people – to reason out what had happened to me – I found I wasn’t believed – that my story was brushed off as an exaggeration – so I stopped talking about it. I know I was actually close to dying. I also remember that I had not experienced any last minute epiphany to help me ‘see the light’ and lead me away from disaster. With apologies to my family, I didn’t consider them because I didn’t think I would be much of a loss to anyone. Anyway, I was in too much pain to think coherently and of consequences. I just wanted to stop.
I didn’t make myself stay alive because I was tough or brave. As I stood on that platform there was no squaring of my spiritual shoulders, no plucky aphorisms pinging around my disordered head. I walked onto that platform broken by pain and I walked off it, unaccountably alive, broken by pain.
I was nothing. Anything hopeful, strong, noble, inspired, joyful had long been stripped off me. I couldn’t even remember what those things felt like; they happened to other people. I didn’t have a reason to live, I just didn’t die.
A couple of years ago I realised what it was: this innate quality that didn’t feel like strength but which had kept me being, not choosing not to be, to paraphrase Gerard Manly Hopkins in one of his Terrible Sonnets.
The thing that kept me alive was resilience. And here is why resilience is different from toughness: everybody has their breaking point, even tough people. In fact, find a tough person’s Achilles’ heel and they can be surprisingly brittle. I have known gritty types who looked awesomely staunch through many hard experiences and who, one day, when things had finally overwhelmed them, had fractured spectacularly. Everyone has a breaking point. But resilient people keep going even after they are broken. They mightn’t be happy, they might keep going as a tear-stained hyperventilating snotty-nosed mess, but they keep going.
In these ‘Solitary mind’ blogs I use the word ‘resilience’ from time to time; I wrote this because I wanted to make clear what I, personally, mean by this word.
We are all being challenged by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic: the concerns about health, anxiety over the state of the economy and our ability to earn, the grinding tedium and, perhaps, loneliness of self-isolation. Over the next few months – maybe even longer – our resilience will be tested. In being shut up in our homes with our own selves, we are about to find out what our own personal resilience looks like (hint: it differs from person to person).
Choosing to be positive, on the days when we have the energy for that, is fabulous. Highly recommended! And, hopefully, for those of us who don’t have to freak out about adverse home conditions (poverty, domestic violence, actual illness), it may be possible to, at times, actively enjoy ourselves by making a point of sleeping in, binge watching stuff on DVD or Netflix, or curling up with a good novel.
But on the days when you feel fragile, unhappy, or disorientated just remember that you don’t have to spend your energy being brave, or tough, or positive, or productive. No one sees you; No one is keeping score or rewarding points on how square your jaw is. On those dark days, just spend your energy on existing; don’t waste energy on asking yourself any more than this. And know that this, too, will pass.
That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, recently published in the Harvard Business Review, features David Kessler being interviewed by Scott Berinato. Read this for some wise advice.
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