If you drop me, I bounce. In fact, as crazy as that sounds, for much of my life, it certainly felt like that was true. As is the case with far too many children around the world, I grew up in a violent home, and it was within this violence, that a nascent spirit of resilience began to germinate, something that became further honed amidst the trauma of sexual violence and addiction later in life.
Yet, here I am today—not on the other side of trauma, but rather, standing along side it, mining it for its whispers of hope, and staring within this aching cavern of blackness for the glimmers of strength that despite what many believe, continue to softly resonate in the shallows of this darkness.
As an elite athlete and public figure, I have the privilege of addressing many groups, and inevitably after a talk during the Q & A period, the issue of ‘resilience’ comes up. I have to admit to feeling somewhat like the main character in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—I’m the last to see what sits in plain view of everyone else around. People want to know about the path I took that enabled me to wade through the trauma and come out the other side somewhat ‘whole’. Unfortunately, it is something I am not able to articulate primarily because I’ve yet to recognize this change within myself. And the more I began unpacking what resilience might mean, the more I began to suspect that the question that people are really trying ask has very little to do with ‘how I managed to survive something’, and everything to do with what happens after the ‘bounce’.
I’m currently working on my next book, an exploration of resilience as manifest through the lives of a diverse group of community leaders from around the world. During the interview process with each of these individuals, I’m attempting to tease out qualities, behaviors, and pathways that highly resilient individuals default to. And surprisingly, as I sit down for each of these interviews, the discussion quickly diverts from what typically comes to mind when we think of ‘resilience’—surviving, enduring, and withstanding—states which can be summed up as static, and the further we progress into the interview, each person begins to talk about a more fluid response to adversity.
The word ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin resiliens, meaning to rebound or recoil—an elastic response. And herein lies what interests us most when we look to those who have weathered adversity for inspiration in our lives. Let’s be honest, there is nothing unique about being present for trauma, hardship, or adversity… If we live long enough, it will befall us all many times over.
At this point, which is most definitely the preliminary stage of the writing of this book, I have noticed that these resilient individuals share a few notable, and I would suggest, enlightening qualities. I thought I would share these with you now, in the hope that you may be able to apply them to any adversity you might be facing.
Learning to be present for the lesson within the adversity
When facing a traumatic or adverse experience, our natural inclination is to recoil, to turn-away from, or to numb ourselves. There is no doubt that at times, this serves as a vital self-protection mechanism, but there comes a time when learning to ‘mine the adversity’ allows us to become in tune with the lesson or intention that lies below the surface of the pain and trauma. A good place to start is by asking yourself, ‘how would my life be better with less?’ In so doing, it clears the space we need for an acceptance free of critical self-judgment to arrive.
Being open to ideas that you currently don’t hold
By holding steadfast to a belief system that has always governed our thoughts and actions, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity for things to ‘look’ and ‘feel’ different in our life. One of the most unpleasant truths of personal growth is that it often arrives after a prolonged exposure to dissonance. People, who are considered more resilient than others, appear to be able to stand within this prolonged period of ‘dis-ease’. Eventually, they arrive at a crux moment at which point, they insert one change or one correction into their lives, and it is this modification, which allows them to move beyond that feeling of ‘stuckness’.
Awakening to a greater sense of empathy
We often hear people who have weathered adversity in their lives describe the experience as a ‘gift they never asked for’. Having said that, I’m conscious of the fact that by choosing to describe a traumatic experience as a ‘gift’, I in some way demean the importance of what someone has gone through. Moreover, a ‘gift’ is typically used to describe something external that arrives in our life; whereas, adversity does not so much bring something to us, as it reveals something we’ve always had within us. In listening to the people I’ve interviewed for my book, the greatest ‘take-away’ for all of them has been a heightened degree of empathy—something that they describe as an awakening that allows them to be more present for others living in discomfort.