Much like a wild animal, I am resilient—I have become accustomed to carving out an existence in the cruelest and most unforgiving places, and more often than not, that unforgiving space exists within the perilous terrain of my mind. I didn’t so much grow up, as evolve. I was raised in a house where mental illness and violence were always present, yet not in plain view. Like the small tangled clumps of dust and hair nestled behind the mahogany furniture, the violence became dislodged with the slightest jarring or unseen wind.
Those who know my story, see the vestiges of the physical and sexual violence that has reverberated throughout my life. But what they don’t see is my constant longing to return to those dark cavernous thickets of my mind—the aching aloneness that for far too long has become my solace, my way to silence all the intolerant whispering that feeds my fear—an incessant self-directed loathing of “You’re not good enough” … “If only they knew”…
I am that wounded animal that has nursed itself back to form. I too am returning from the brambles and underbrush, and back to life. Still, something rages on inside me, as I am torn between seeking the uncertainty of community, or defaulting to my self-imposed isolation. But I know that’s just my illness talking… the remnants of my PTSD, waiting to be ensnared and unraveled, like the errant strands on the sleeve of your favorite threadbare shirt.
I am reminded by something the Quaker scholar, Parker Palmer wrote. He was recalling how during a prolonged bout with incapacitating depression, he felt as though his intellect, ego, and emotions were dead. Yet, throughout that darkness, the rumblings of his soul continued to survive, like the faint embers of a fire. And it is in our darkest moments, and amongst these flickering embers, that we catch a glimpse of that undying spirit inside of us. The trick to bringing this spirit back to life is in allowing it space and time to nurture itself back to wholeness. And like a timid animal waiting to reemerge, the more we rustle and thrash through the forest, the farther it recedes into solitude.
A few years ago, I disclosed to my wife that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse—a secret I thought I would harbor in my soul until the day I died. What is someone to do when the person they so dearly love shares such searing pain with them? I can tell you what my wife, Mary-Anne didn’t do… She didn’t press me for more details, and more importantly, she didn’t try to fix me, or soothe me. What she did do is sit with me in that moment of pain, and in that moment of released shame. And then in the months that followed, together as a couple we learned the difference between being there for someone and being there with someone. So often we want to take away the pain of those we love; however, deep down the thing we all want is for someone else to be present with us in our discomfort.
I think Parker Palmer describes this ability to ‘be with another’ so eloquently: “People who know how to sit quietly… and wait for the shy soul to show up… not pushy, but patient; they are not confrontational but compassionate; they are filled not with expectations and demands but with abiding faith in the reality of the inner teacher and in each person’s capacity to learn from it.”
I invite you to observe that wounded animal in you—notice where it crawls away in isolation. Search for the lessons in those darkest moments, and most of all, if you are summoned into someone else’s wilderness, be present and gentle as you wait for that timid soul to reemerge.
Given the choice, I would choose struggle over the softer, easier way each and every time. Now before you accuse me of insanity, permit me the chance to invite you to reframe the way you approach adversity in your life.
As an elite endurance athlete, I’m accustomed to brushing up against physical and psychological thresholds—the uncomfortable feeling that comes knowing that the difference between success and disappointment lies on that razor-thin edge bridging the gap between self-exploration and complete annihilation.
Like many athletes competing in extreme endurance events, I arrived to the sport well honed in the skills necessary to successfully navigate the landscape of adversity. A childhood tempered with physical and sexual violence fostered in me an unbreakable will to survive, something that I continued to draw upon well into my thirties in order to weather serious issues with addiction and precarious mental health. Today, it makes no difference if I’m giving a talk to a group of students or delivering a keynote at a conference, I always return to the same refrain: “I would not wish my life experience on anyone else, yet at the same time, I would not wish for another life because it has delivered me to a place of immense self-knowledge and inner fortitude.”
I think it’s safe to say that as a society, we are rather risk-averse. We are eager to walk a smoother path, and are naturally drawn to life hacks, shortcuts, and workarounds. But are we doing ourselves, and more importantly our children, a disservice by sidestepping the lessons of adversity? Friedrich Nietzsche referred to what he called “the discipline of suffering”, something he credits with propelling most human advancements and enhancements. He talked about the lesson of strength that can be mined in the discomfort of adversity: “That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness—was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”
I’m currently at work on a book about resilience, and part of the research for this project has involved interviewing a broad cross section of individuals from around the world who exhibit and possess sustained resilience in their lives. One of the questions I hope to answer in this book is whether or not it is possible for someone to nurture and ‘default to resilience’ even though (s)he has not experienced trauma, devastating loss, or extreme adversity in life. Not surprisingly, the responses from the people I’ve interviewed vary greatly on this point, but one theme appears to be reverberating throughout these interviews—an acceptance that there are indeed practical steps each of us can take to become more resilient.
If you, or someone you know, exhibits a high level of resilience, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever wondered what separates those rare individuals who are able to step forward after trauma and adversity from those of us who are stunted, derailed, or in some way consumed by similar life circumstances or events? As a society, we tend to gravitate to the ‘bounce back’ narrative so often espoused in the media, and one that is particularly true of the stories most commonly shared on social media. There is something about heralding the underdog or championing someone’s arduous climb through adversity that resonates deeply within us.
Despite being a public figure, I’ve never been one to shy away from talking openly about my own struggles with addiction, depression, and childhood trauma; and as a result, I have noticed that whenever I give a talk, the question of resilience is inevitably raised. Most recently, I’ve come to believe that our obsession with the ‘bouncing-back-from-adversity’ narrative tells only half the story, and I would suggest that it might in fact be the least interesting part of what is actually taking place during this personal transformation.
I am currently working on a book about resilience, and part of this process involves interviewing 30 individuals--resilience exemplars—people from around the world who exhibit an incredible and sustained level of resilience. I set out to write the book with the conviction that resilience has little to do with weathering the storm, or what we like to refer to as ‘bouncing back’, and everything to do with using that storm as a demarcation point.
I am approximately halfway through the interview process, and at this point, a number of recurring themes have appeared—some of which, I thought I would share with you:
Resilience is elastic.
Instead of talking about people who wholeheartedly weather adversity as being bounceable, I would suggest that it is resilience itself that has an ethereal elasticity to it. And in that light, we can begin to move away from the common misconception that being resilient has much to do with adopting strategies and mindsets that insulate us from the pain and uncertainty of adversity. In fact, the interview data suggest that resilience rises from an ability to be present with, and thereby process the scope of the adversity. The key is to avoid being consumed by it.
Resilience exemplars neither ‘artificially’ compartmentalize their adversity, nor negate the residue or resonance that trauma has throughout a lifetime. There is most definitely a period of processing and making sense of trauma and adversity, but there comes a pivotal point at which the individual makes the decision to move beyond ‘stuckness’ and towards personal growth and understanding.
Resilience resonates in the spaces and pauses we create.
Another critical component of resilience appears to be the ability to create a ‘buffer’ or space that allows someone the time to evaluate, process, and prioritize a given situation. Resilience thrives in the grey zones of insecurity and ambiguity; thus, finish lines and task outcomes take a backseat to daily ritual and a need to prioritize self-care, as these become ballasts against the paralyzing waves of self-doubt and uncertainty. Moreover, it is the importance of stressing ongoing self-care that leads to a high degree of self-awareness, which thus permits resilient individuals the ability to zoom the lens out from their own engagement with trauma or adversity. In so doing, they gain both time and perspective, which in turn gives them the sense that they are not alone in this discomfort.
With resilience, comes an opening of ‘self’.
Resilience exemplars are more likely to be ‘soul-driven’ than ‘passion driven’. Instead of being consumed or incapacitated by the intensity of a given situation, they zealously nurture an evolving degree of self-awareness predicated on building empathic connections within their community. Both Elizabeth Gilbert (in her book “Big Magic”) and Angela Duckworth (in her book “Grit”) caution against the often-touted advice of following your passion because by its very nature, passion is all-consuming and fleeting at best. Therefore, it’s not surprising that people we think of as resilient are generally in it for the ‘long game’, and that might also be a factor in their ability to be seen as community leaders and agents of change.
Resilience has a lot to do with embracing past scars and the dissonance of lived experience as a road map forward, and ultimately, as a bridge to connect with others in your community. As the Pakistani writer Moshin Hamid once said: “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” I couldn’t agree more, and I would also suggest that resonating in those echoes is the connection we all seek that in turn, permits the resilience to grow within us and beyond us.
If you, or someone you know, is a ‘resilience exemplar’, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at email@example.com.