Resilience for such a time as this

The term resilient can evoke an image of a strong, silent person, most often a man such as several of the characters that John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have portrayed. Such a person who stubbornly persists no matter what occurs, never sharing his (or her) feelings. That stereotype unhelpfully confuses emotional openness with the ability to persevere or bounce back from hardship. Illustratively, emotional openness connotes awareness of one’s feeling and a willingness to share those feelings with another; resilience is the rider who, trying to break a horse, when thrown gets up, shakes off the dust, and gets back in the saddle.

Resilience receives too little attention in discussions of Christian character. Yet, resilience is vital for healthy living. Resilience helps a person to bounce back after adversity. Christianity is not a prophylactic against bad things happening to a person nor can Christianity set the world, or even the Christian, right after bad things happen. Christians, like everybody else, need resilience.

How can a person cultivate resilience?

Step 1: Practice good cognitive behavior health. Good cognitive behavior health calls for intentionally incorporating into your outlook or worldview a recognition of your limits. Importantly, much of life is beyond your control, bad things happen to everyone, and the timing of many of life’s events is unpredictable. Furthermore, lack of total control does not equal everything being out of your control. Knowing what is and is not within our ability to effect avoids the anxiety and hypervigilance often associated with believing that one can control one’s fate or destiny. Fear generally will harm you more than will the harm caused by that which you fear.

Step 2: Exert positive influence in areas of life you can control or effect. Choose to associate with people who like you and have your best interests at heart. Prepare for the worst (helps to avoid bad situations becoming worse) and hope for the best (maintain a positive, optimistic outlook). Psychological research has shown steps 1 and 2 are effective in reducing stress and promoting happiness.

Step 3: Choose and follow a religious path. Daily practicing the habits associated with that path – scripture reading, prayer, meditation, and so forth – will cultivate inner strength and allow one to draw upon a strength beyond one’s self.

Step 4: Cultivate emotional, mental, and spiritual strength. Study the lives of saints, secular and sacred, who modeled inner strength. Examples include the Stoics (Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus), Christian missionaries and martyrs (Patrick, Francis Xavier, Oscar Romero), persons who sought to incarnate radical justice (William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.) and persons of other religious traditions (Gandhi, Lao Tzu). Identify their source(s) of inner strength and then incorporate the practices they used to connect with those source(s).

Step 5: Recognize that developing resilience will require time, effort, and perhaps some pain or unpleasantness. One of Nixon’s Watergate burglars, Gordon Liddy, memorably developed physical toughness by holding his hand over a lit candle until his skin charred. Developing resilience does not require masochism. More helpfully, Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, in his bestseller on resilience identified five variables that go into training of any kind, including developing resilience:

Frequency is important because we learn through repetition. Our bodies and minds and spirits need to adapt between each practice. Intensity is important because we grow only when we push ourselves beyond the boundaries of our past experiences. Duration is important because we need to train as long as necessary for our bodies, minds, and spirits to adapt to our work. Recovery is important because our bodies, minds, and spirits need time to adapt to what we have learned. When we sleep after exercise, we can grow stronger. When we sleep after studying, we can grow smarter. Even monks take breaks from prayer so that their spirits can grow. Finally, reflection is important because we have to consider our performance against the standards we have set, adjust ourselves, and integrate what we've learned into our lives. Our times of practice will become isolated islands unless we reflect. Reflection is the bridge between what we practice and the way we live our lives.[1]

Step 6: Rewrite your story. Consciously shift from emphasizing negative moments to highlighting your successes. What made you successful in each moment? Can you repeat those successes? A positive narrative (I remember a popular 1960s poster that depicted a child sitting amid drug paraphernalia with the caption, “Never forget that God created you and God doesn’t create junk!”) develops resilience by encouraging healthy self-esteem and optimism about the future.[2] Military training programs – think of boot camps in which drill instructors seek to tear down and then to rebuild recruits – attempt to build resilience both to increase warfighting capacity and to diminish the likelihood of PTSD.

The six steps identified above are more concurrent than sequential. You may have additional steps.

The Covid-19 pandemic may call upon you to be resilient; for all, the pandemic affords an excellent opportunity to further develop one’s resilience.

[1] Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (Buena Vista, VA: Mariner Books, 2016), Ch. 12.
[2] Tara Parker-Pope, "How to Build Resilience in Midlife," New York Times, July 25, 2017.


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