Major characteristics of the resilient

That which does not kill us makes us stronger (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Who doesn’t admire the resiliency of the people of New York City? Those who have survived the most ferocious terrorist attack ever, have showed how, in a few short months, they could bounce back and get on with life. True, the world changed after September 11th. But so did they. Today they are stronger. Who would guess by the peaceful, smiling faces of the immigrants and refugees across from us in the bus or subway, that many of them have experienced horrors many times greater than the New York attack? They, too, testify to the resiliency of the human spirit and are proof of Nietzsche’s statement, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

What about us? Haven’t we learned to look both ways before crossing the street? We don’t allow the traffic to immobilize us with fear but adapt to life. We are all resilient, although we may forget at times. But don’t forget. You never know when you will be called on to rely on your inner strength. You may have to face a flood, house fire, hurricane, grave illness, homelessness, prison, serious accident, or death in the family. Are you ready? Are you resolute or fainthearted? Resolve today to stand strong and refuse to allow any disaster to destroy you. They may have brought the World Trade Center to its knees, but you are greater, so refuse to buckle under any adversity.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, let me point out that resilient people are no more free from pain than courageous people are free from fear. The very definition of courageous means to act DESPITE one’s fear. Similarly, to be resilient is to go on DESPITE the pain. It is to recognize that some things are more important than licking one’s wounds. Like a boxer, you may be badly bruised, but you get up after the fall and carry on with the struggle. The first lesson, then, is you cannot be resilient if you try to avoid pain. For more lessons on resiliency, let’s consider the major characteristics of the resilient. By copying these qualities, we will be able to grow in resiliency.

The resilient are optimists. When tragedy strikes, they believe it is a temporary setback that doesn’t affect all areas of their life and it is due to outside circumstances. With an attitude like this, is it surprising that they can stand up to adversity? Compare this attitude with that of a pessimist. When disaster erupts, a pessimist believes the problem will continue indefinitely, affect all areas of their life, and is their fault. No wonder they become frozen with fear and unable to cope. Resilient people are positive minded. They relish learning and coping and avoid wallowing in self-pity and blame. They don’t ask for a lighter load, but ask for a stronger back.

Adaptability. Because they are flexible they don’t have to know what’s in store for tomorrow. Rather than despair in the uncertainty of life, they delight in its surprises. They don’t have a need to KNOW, but a need to BE. A need to be up to the daily challenges of life.

Goal setting. They love setting goals. Because goals are a compass. When problems come, goals point to a way out, and when the dust settles, goals point to a way ahead. They are not shaped by circumstance, but shape circumstance to meet their needs.

Seek help. When coping with heavy burdens, resilient people don’t hesitate to seek help. Help may come in the form of family support, government aid, self-help and church groups, or advice of friends and teachers. Even a good book may offer all the support they need. They realize that they are not alone and that their burden will help them, and those who support them, to grow stronger.

Sense of Humor. A sense of humor is a salve or balm that can heal our bruises. What can be more painful than to be a prisoner facing one’s executioner? Yet, here are some last words of those condemned to die. Examples of how, in the worst of times, we can choose to smile instead of frown. Before being executed by firing squad, murderer James Rogers was asked if he had any last request. “Why, yes,” he replied, “I’d like to have a bulletproof vest.” In 1966, before James French was executed by electric chair in Oklahoma, he said, “How about this for a headline in tomorrow’s paper? French fries!” Also, in 1928, before George Appel was executed by electric chair in New York, he said, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.”

Self-confidence. We can face challenges when we are confident in our ability to overcome them. A useful tool for developing our confidence is to reflect on what we are, have, and can do. Reflect on what you ARE by considering your strengths and past accomplishments. Reflect on what you HAVE by recalling your friends, family, and role models. Reflect on what you CAN DO by visualizing your skills and talents. Unless we reflect on all the resources at our disposal, we’re apt to forget them. Don’t!

Endless learning.
Resilient people never outgrow their childhood, for good reason. For who are more resilient than children? Like children, the resilient are playful and eternally curious. Nothing delights them more than learning. Whether it’s experience or education, learning promises a brighter tomorrow because it makes them better.

So, what is the message for us? Simply this, when a catastrophe threatens, acknowledge and accept the unavoidable pain; look for the good in the situation; set goals and start taking action, no matter how modest. After doing so, we will be able to join the ranks of survivors. And like them, we will say, “Although I would never willingly go through this again, it was the one of best things that ever happened to me.” After all, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we would have learned “We acquire the strength we have overcome.” Or, like Robert Frost, we would have realized that “Something we were withholding made us weak, until we found it was ourselves.”

Parents, if you would have your children grow up resilient, don’t rush in and try to rescue them at every opportunity. For as Adele Faber explains, “From their struggles to establish dominance over each other, siblings become tougher and more resilient. From their endless rough-housing with each other, they develop speed and agility. From their verbal sparring they learn the difference between being clever and being hurtful. From the normal irritations of living together, they learn how to assert themselves, defend themselves, and compromise. And sometimes, from their envy of each other’s special abilities they become inspired to work harder, persist and achieve.”

Before parting, I’d like to share a verse of Ho Chi Minh, who wrote in his prison cell, “Without the cold and bleakness of winter, The warmth and splendor of spring there could never be, Misfortunes have steeled and tempered me, And strengthened my resolve even further.”