We live in uncertain times, but this much I know to be true—live long enough, and sooner or later your life will go off script, leaving you with an aching feeling of dissonance precipitated by an incapacitating trauma, adversity, or loss. And when you eventually emerge from that mourning, it will have everything to do with your beckoning the courage to somehow claw your way out of the suffocating darkness. Arising into a tumultuous sea of uncertainty, you might find yourself desperately clinging to that one person who will be your lifeboat… your safe harbor. And more than likely, you’ll begin to amass a menagerie of talisman to which you summon your nescient, and oh so fragile strength. Self help books and spiritual texts will increasingly find their way into your life; and perhaps, you will even choose to be so bold as to mark this journey with a tattoo—a forever reminder of how far you traveled only to get back to yourself.
As you step back from the chasm of darkness, you desperately try to make some semblance of the fractured pieces of your former life, now lying threadbare and scattered at your feet. ‘Just move on’ people will tell you. ‘Put it behind you’… ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ But what if that’s not true? What if some scars and losses in our life simply run too deep for us to untether and ignore.
People often tell me that I’m resilient—a quality that I find as elusive to define as I do to recognize it in myself. It’s likely that what others see as my moving forward in life coincided with my decision to stop trying to slip the noose of the trauma and loss I experienced, and instead, to compassionately begin to make space for all that pain and absence. It was as though without even being aware of it, I began to entertain the notion of ‘healing with’ something rather than continually trying to ‘heal from’ something.
Those who live with the insidious scars of trauma see themselves as forever changed, altered, or re-calibrated in some way. And for me, at times, it can feel like I have four garbage cans, and only three lids. It’s an intricate and exhausting stealth-like dance to muffle the less socially acceptable symptoms of my mental illness. It’s constantly living in a ‘grey zone’ in a world that only sees things as either black or white. It’s figuring out how to deny those vestiges of trauma the oxygen they need to breathe to life, while at the same time, searching in vain for the vocabulary to articulate their uneasy presence in my life.
The Christian pastor and poet, Eugene Peterson once said: “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around, and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself… Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.” And to me, that is the essence of resilience—a conscious choice to transgress the fragile boundary we erect around our pain, and a faith to move beyond that, which is ‘cosmetic’ towards that, which is ‘intestinal’.
Resilience has very little to do with surviving, and everything to do with awakening into where you are at this very moment. When we distance ourselves from, or anaesthetize ourselves against trauma and loss, we inadvertently diminish the potential breadth and beauty of our life. Trauma has such resonance in our lives for the very fact that its arrival casts a shadow over parts of our mind that were once open to us. I was listening to a BBC interview with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay, in which she said, “We write to understand the things that are missing in our lives… I think we are also often shadowed in our life by losses… that kind of strange loss becomes actually a presence… and so, an absence becomes a presence in our life… Writers often write to grapple with the presence that absence makes.”
So, maybe that’s where truth lies—having the faith to wholeheartedly “grapple with that presence that absence makes.” Resilience is not that which keeps us safe and allows us to survive; but rather, resilience is unearthed in each of us as we wrestle our way towards the pieces of us that terrify us most. In the words of embedded war correspondent David Morris, someone who has written candidly about his own battles with PTSD: "The goal of every survivor is to try to resolve this failed homecoming, to try to be less apart.”
I am an elite athlete, and I’m known for running insanely long distances, and for brushing up against the limits of human endurance. But over the past 4 years, I’ve quite literally run myself into the ground, and the thought of stopping terrifies me.
I run to escape the woman who gave birth to me… a woman who beat the shit out of me until she walked out… the woman I vowed never to speak to again, that same woman I so desperately want back in my life. I run because I’ve simply replaced a ‘healthier’ addiction for the drugs and alcohol that tore a hole in my stomach and brought me to the darkest void of suicide. I run because it washes away that corrosive sense of worthlessness I’ve carried with me since being sexual abused as kid. But most of all, I run for that other kid out there who still feels he’s worthless… for that other addict who continues to sacrifice her future for the numbing oblivion of today. I run because I pray that the ache I feel inside just might be the resilience so many others see in me.
For the past 6 months, I’ve been working on a book about resilience, and that has involved interviewing people from around the world to hear how they have continued to move forward in life despite tremendous trauma, adversity, and loss. In well over 200 hours of interviews, I’ve sat with parents who have lost children to suicide and tragic accidents, and I’ve listened to the trembling voices as people describe what it is like to witness loved ones killed in genocide. I’ve seen first-hand the immutable will of former sex workers, and heard stories of people ravaged by addiction and eating disorders—those who live on the margins of society. I’ve listened in on the resilience found at the end life, and heard its echoes in countless voices as they attempted to describe what it is like being draped in hope even while living on the precipice of constant uncertainty.
As I’m nearing the end of the interview phase of this book, there most certainly are overriding themes that weave the ephemeral fabric of resilience. It is next to impossible to articulate something that lies beyond our own understanding. I would go so far as to suggest that resilience is something we only recognize in others, yet it is that very quality of recognizing it in others that allows us to entertain the idea that it may exist within us. If I had to sum up one word that described all the amazing ‘resilient’ people I’ve interviewed, it would be--But. People who are able to move through trauma, adversity, and loss are those who actively choose to be superior to their circumstance—those who continually decide to live on the other side of ‘but’. Yes, I became a quadriplegic in the accident, but I’m not going to let it stop me from living a full life. Yes, I lost my daughter to suicide, but I’ve got two other kids who need me right now and a lot of other children I’ve yet to meet who need me to advocate for them too. Yes, I carry the trauma of my childhood with me to this day, but I choose to move towards the vulnerability of discovering how that past still haunts me today.
In my interview with the former Canadian Olympic sprinter, Ben Johnson, I asked him why he is still widely beloved by his fans while Lance Armstrong appears to be denied that same redemption. Through Ben I learned that an important part of resilience involves creating strong and authentic connection with others so that when adversity arrives, you have a safe place to land. In the words of Ben: “When the ship sinks, there will be nobody there to help you because they will remember the way you’ve treated them. And that’s where [Lance and I] are different… generally people don’t say anything bad about me because of the way I treat people with respect, and in the way I interact with them. People saw that in me when I was running… Even when I was very successful and doing well, I would go back to my roots where I came from and talk to people. I would sit down and talk to people who didn’t have very much, and they would remember when I was a young boy. It’s important to never forget where you came from and the people who were there for you when you were growing up… These are the people who believe in you.”
One of the most beautiful conversations I had was with a young man named Dean Wardak. A few years ago, Dean was drinking with his high school friends at a party, and he made the fateful decision to get behind the wheel of his car. Dean wrapped his car around a tree, and the force of the impact left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. It’s a tragic story that could end there, but Dean has chosen to find a ‘blessing’ in that story, and it’s a lesson he shares with other young adults. “When I give talks at high schools, that’s actually one of the main points I make. Even though I was in an accident, I am actually ‘blessed’ because I didn’t harm another life. I’m a very emotional type of person, so I know that had my actions affected another family, that overwhelming guilt would have changed my life forever. Let’s be honest, if you destroy another life, impact another family, that’s a horrible thing, so this is why I consider myself lucky, or blessed. This is the main message I share with high school kids… If you drink and drive, you may not be as lucky as I am… Your actions might destroy another family.”
Time and again, the people I’ve interviewed have shown me that resilience has nothing to do with being bulletproof, or discovering your strength forged in adversity. Instead what I’m hearing is that on the other side of that ‘but’ is fear, discomfort, and uncertainty. One of the most illuminating windows into resilience came from Dr. Carolina Vidal. Carolina arrived as a refugee from El Salvador, carrying with her a lot of trauma and loss. Today, Carolina is a psychiatrist and one of Canada’s leading experts in the field of P.T.S.D. Here’s what Carolina had to say about walking towards what scares us most:
“Resilience is the ability to embrace the fear. Fear is my best friend now in everything I do. If you change your attitude or the way you think about fear, it can be amazing. Especially when both you and your fear decide to jump together. I came here as a refugee from El Salvador, and although I was educated as a doctor, because of my English skills, I had a fear of speaking in public. And I even had fear of getting into relationships that may be hurtful for me. However, now for whatever reason, something has shifted inside of me, to the point that if you tell me I should be afraid of something, the more I want to do THAT thing—today, fear is my friend. I embrace fear because I know nothing bad is going to happen to me… Why would I say this? Because you either succeed at what you’re attempting to do, or you learn… In either case, you’re never going to lose.”
As the interviews for my book are drawing to a close, I feel at times as though I’m struggling under the weight of responsibility that comes with carrying the wisdom and beauty of these stories of resilience. I’m also left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, from a faith that resilience lies within each and every one of us. In the words of Bruce Barton: "Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.”
Look at me on the street, or scroll through photos of me clogging up your social media stream, more than likely what you’d see is an active, healthy, and smiling middle-aged man—an endurance athlete with an insatiable appetite for cookies. But here’s the truth… just like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s iconic poem, I feel as though I’m wandering around encumbered by the greatest of weights:
Ah! wel-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.
But instead of albatross around my neck, my toxic stowaway is something far less visible, and far more socially corrosive—fragile mental health. That smiling athlete you see on Facebook is the same person who at one time, tried to take his own life. He’s all too accustomed to seeing the fear in the eyes of the people who despite the struggle, love him deeply, even at his darkest moments when he can’t love himself.
I take little solace in knowing that like me, millions of others around the world, dread this time of year—not because of the shortened days and biting cold, but because they know that these conditions are fertile ground for depression’s talons to imbed firmly in our marrow. When it comes to living with a mental illness, it is the stigma that can take its greatest toll. Even though I currently find myself on the other side of depression, I am ever so aware of how thin that veil is between me and fragile mental health. It’s times like these, when I’m feeling my strongest, that I realize how important it is to bring depression to the fore—to engage people in conversations about what depression, anxiety, and PTSD feel like. So, how do you describe the aching cavern of mental illness to someone who has never lived through it? I’m not sure if I can, but I’m going to try…
Depression has nothing to do with feeling sad, and everything to do with feeling nothing. Imagine a total loss of direction, a complete disconnect from anything sound, comforting, and forward-looking. Depression is not here one day, and then magically disappears the next. I also believe that no one is ever “cured” from depression.
If you’re fortunate, you may get a blessed reprieve, a gradual clawing back to a life of normalcy, for we know that depression is not an endless blanket of smothering darkness, but rather, more closely resembles a mysterious series of shape-shifting, and what I would describe as quiet, internal seismic victories.
Sitting within the depression, you are forced to draw on a will buried so deep inside that ironically, many of us never get to witness its birthing. And often what this looks like is nothing more than the quietest, yet bravest decision that lies just on the other side of consciousness—a subtle grace that allows you not to take your own life for just one more day.
For me, it was finding that place nestled within the architecture of my being where I unearthed the faith that allowed me to believe that the next moment of my life would arrive with less pain than I was in now. When you are on the outside of depression and are looking in, you will be baffled because depression does not play by the rules. It is a wily, and at times, vicious animal that has slipped its snare and has entrapped someone you love.
From a vantage point on the outside, it’s as though we are looking through the wrong end of a telescope. From the perspective of the individual ensnared in the depression, what is needed most is not the decree of the sane, but the empathetic presence of those who bear witness to that of which they have an absence of vocabulary, yet an abundance of caring.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that hope, and by that I mean a faith in our resilience, lies within authentic conversations about uncomfortable topics such as depression. I’ll leave you with a beautiful poem entitled, “The Gates of Hope” by Victoria Safford because within her beautiful words, I find solace in knowing that resilience comes when we sit with the uncomfortable—when we begin to see ourselves in the struggles and joys of others.
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”
I’m coming to the end of the 6-month research phase for a book I’m writing on resilience. Over the course of these many months, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over 100 individuals who have demonstrated sustained and remarkable resilience while weathering tragic loss, trauma, and adversity. And in each and every one of these interviews, we reach a point at which, for perhaps even the briefest of moments, I am able to convince the individual sitting across from me that in fact, (s)he is resilient. There is something about resilience that cloaks it from our awareness, an ethereal quality that lies forever beyond our purview—the moment we try to grasp it, or define it, is the moment it recedes further from our understanding.
I was recently listening to an interview with Bruce Springsteen on the program “Desert Island Discs”, on BBC Radio 4. While reminiscing about his own childhood, Bruce said: “I believe every artist had someone who told them that they weren’t worth dirt and someone who told them that they were the second coming of the baby Jesus, and they believed ‘em both.” I couldn’t help but think how those words echoed so much of what I had heard time and again during my resilience interviews.
If what I believe to be true, that resilience is something that lies within each of us, why is it the case that some people appear to be able to move forward in their life after adversity and trauma, while others become disillusioned, untethered, and overwhelmed? I think the answer lies, at least in part, in those words of Bruce Springsteen—a choice, whether conscious or not, to see ourselves not as destitute, but rather, as ‘the second coming of baby Jesus’. Because it is within this place of worthiness and love, that we enlist the fortitude needed after trauma and adversity, a blind faith that allows us to take those tentative steps towards the unknown. Resilience is not a matter of withstanding or surviving something; instead, it’s a decision to let go of what you always believed your life to be in order to reawaken to what life is moving you towards.
We often think of resilience as a manifestation of the human spirit’s ability to survive the unfathomable—those grand disasters and tragedies that populate news headlines and our social media feeds. It’s as though we don’t believe resilience could possible be at play in the midst of our own ‘mundane’ life. A clear example of this arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago, a message from a young mother named Natalie Doyle, a message that quite literally took my breath away with its vulnerability and honesty. The message began, “To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m even emailing you. I don’t even think this is a story for your book… I am no known athlete, actor, or doctor. I am just a mom…”
The letter details the struggles that Natalie and her husband have faced these past five years. She describes being pregnant 5 times, and shares that she has “3 beautiful babies, and 1 angel baby who I was able to hold and at least say goodbye.” She shares that 10 days after her second child was born, they discovered that he has Cystic Fibrosis… She talks about feeling as though a part of her “had died” and that “from there, our lives changed forever… I wanted to give up.” A subsequent pregnancy brought her ‘angel baby’, and now they have a third child who is almost 11 months old… She too has Cystic Fibrosis.
Towards the end of each interview, I always ask the following question because I believe this question elicits the most wholehearted responses—It’s a question that forces us to wrestle with our demons of inferiority and aloneness, and somehow in that process of responding to the question, each person manages to transcend that most painful of human conditions, and in so doing touches the divine within each of us.
So here is Natalie’s response to the question: What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?
“For me, it’s making sure that my children are bathed… I’m reading stories to them at night… and trying to teach them strength. To try to teach my kids how to deal with the struggles that you and I have faced in life; and unfortunately, I’m having to teach them this at such a young age… where I don’t think you or I were ever exposed to this kind of struggle so early in life.
I know that I’m not perfect, but most of the time I feel as though I’m doing this. Sometimes I may fall apart, and they see my cry, but what I want to teach them is strength, and I want to teach them that nobody is perfect… and I want to teach them that life is going to throw us curveballs, so we will need to learn how to deal with them.”
And that brings me to the central question of my quest to find the essence, strands, and embers of resilience—Is there hope and redemption in mining our painful past, or is the cost of such a journey too great to embark upon? I believe that our greatest strengths are often found in the stories others see in us rather than in those threadbare delusional stories we tell ourselves, those we have carried around inside of us for far too long. Resilience resides in communion, not in isolation. I can think of no better way to express this than in the closing words of Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
As a recovering addict, there is really only one thing I can’t do, and that’s pick up a drink or a drug. That being said, there are many things I ‘ought to’ do, and leading that list is nurturing the practice of gratitude. Like many people around the world, I too, felt the shockwaves of the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Many of us are in disbelief that someone so brash and caustic is set to become the leader of the most powerful country on the planet.
Yet, here I sit at my computer feeling grateful… Grateful that I’m an addict in recovery. Grateful for the countless hours spent in 12-step meetings most often taking place in musty church basements. Grateful for the gallons of bitter coffee I’ve consumed drawn from immense silver coffee urns that have seen better days. Grateful for the uncomfortable folding chairs that populate these meeting rooms. Grateful for the ‘still-struggling addict’ who wanders into our meetings. Grateful that to the right of me sits a Bay Street banker who has lost everything to addiction, and to the left of me sits a young man, homeless yet not broken of the spirit to crawl out from the ravages of his addiction.
Yes, today I am grateful for my addiction because for many days every week for the past 19 years, it as brought me to recovery rooms where I come face to face with what scares me most—‘you’. My illness likes to tell me I’m ‘different’ from you… My addiction likes to whisper to me that I should fear everything about you. Today, I’m grateful for those moments of clarity that remind me that you and I are not so different. If I am willing to truly see you, and really listen to you, I might just receive the grace of change that comes only in community.
Yes, today I’m grateful I am an addict in recovery... It's far too easy for me to smugly condemn the sense of myopia south of the border that led to the election of Donald Trump. The reality is that there is a growing movement around the world in which people are choosing 'fear' over 'acceptance'... choosing to silence the most vulnerable under the auspice of 'national self-interest' and a return to a so-called 'golden era'. What I fear most is that just as globalization has made our 'world smaller', somehow in the process, our hearts have become 'smaller' too.
Yes, today I am grateful for you.
Every year on October 10th, we recognize World Mental Health Day. It’s an important day upon which the global community strives to not only raise awareness of mental health issues but also mobilize efforts to support mental health initiatives at both the grassroots and national levels. Leaving aside the immense political and economic hurdles faced in terms of adequately funding the appropriate educational and medical supports needed to address this multi-faceted issue, I think we can all agree that each us plays a vital role in helping to eliminate the stigma surrounding fragile or compromised mental health.
Is there anything more tragic than going through life ‘unseen’, feeling crushingly alone despite being in community? That’s exactly what living with the stigma of compromised mental health feels like. Stigma is showing up with a full heart and only revealing half of it. Stigma is having to look at the pity in someone else’s eyes as they watch your life falling apart. Stigma is only feeling safe sitting in the waiting room of your psychiatrist's or therapist's office, knowing that here, and only here, do you feel people really know you. Stigma is filling out the disability benefits form from the Human Resources department because you can no longer function at work. Stigma is feeling broken and unworthy of love as you sit across from your partner as he or she struggles to find the right words to take away some of your pain and all of your hurt.
My own experience with tenuous mental health is not dissimilar to that of countless others—a torturous and haunting journey through the dark cavernous abyss of depression, waves of paralyzing nausea-inducing anxiety attacks, nights of being jarred awake in a cold sweat from piercing night terrors otherwise known as the unforgiving echoes of PTSD. Yet despite all of these symptomatic signposts that demarcate the jagged terrain of mental illness, I am still inclined to argue that the most soul-destroying symptom of all, and a byproduct of the stigma of living with mental illness, is the self-internalized belief that you will never be able to inhabit all of your life. It’s facing the reality of a life immersed in the dissonance that comes from never feeling ‘whole’.
I recently heard an interview with the American social and political activist, Courtney E. Martin, in which she described how exhausting it is for us to constantly craft our online persona—an endless happiness parade of joyful selfies, highlights, and stylized moments. In her interview, Courtney suggested that quite possibly the bravest thing each of us can do, is to show up ‘whole’, vulnerable, and authentic. Indeed, a terrifying prospect for most of us, but as Courtney points out, “sometimes it can be worth it, in part because when you show up whole, you give other people permission to do so, as well. You can actually feel the air change when someone does this, can’t you? It’s as if our cells collectively relax, oxygenated by the idea that this is a place where, apparently, we can show up as ourselves. What a relief. What a gift.”
So, I guess that brings me back to reflecting upon the significance of World Mental Health Day, and how I would love to see more and more of us who struggle with mental health issues deciding to step beyond the stigma into our whole life. Just like Dove’s well-publicized Real Beauty Campaign of a few years ago, where women were encouraged to post no-makeup selfies to show their real beauty, I suggest we consider a similar campaign around mental health. I encourage you to join with me in this campaign by using the hashtag #ThisIsMeToo.
Let me start us all off by sharing:
I’m an elite athlete, but I also suffer from PTSD and anxiety disorder. #ThisIsMeToo
For as long as I can remember, I’ve found great solace living in the margins— tenuous spaces inhabited by those set adrift, the wanderers, and the disenfranchised. I spent much of life uncoiled and disconnected, living as an emotional chameleon, a direct result of childhood trauma, and later as I nursed the seismic aftershocks of that trauma reverberating through my teens and into my 30’s in the guise of addiction and suicidal depression.
Yet here I am today at 50—an elite athlete, author, and international advocate for survivors of sexual violence. I do a lot of public speaking, and the question I’m most frequently asked is: How were you able to use the adversity in your life as a stepping-stone for growth and success? I believe it all comes down to resilience, and by that, I’m not referring to that static inner strength that allows us to endure or survive great hardship, trauma, or loss, but rather, to a fluid quality within that enables certain individuals to actively respond to and redirect the untethered energy of that adversity. It’s a conscious decision that is available to all of us when we face our most all-consuming challenges, yet it is a choice that few are willingly to embrace—And for me, that is what sets apart people who are ‘resilient’ from those who merely ‘survive’.
So, how do you get to the place where you can nurture resilience in your life? I’m currently at work on a book about that very question, and part of the research for this project involves interviewing over 100 people from around the world who have demonstrated immense and sustained resilience through some extremely challenging life circumstances. A theme that continues to reappear in these interviews is the importance of getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable. In other words, it’s learning to exist within, and navigate along those disarming margins we often find ourselves in.
Anthropology refers to something called liminality, a term that has its etymology in the Latin word “līmen”, meaning "a threshold". It is a concept that is used to describe that period of uncertainty and disorientation occurring within the middle of a ritual when participants can no longer trust the pre-ritual status and have yet to identify and enlist the appropriate transition or way of being needed to move forward. It’s a disorienting feeling during which identity, community, and security are in great flux.
I believe that our ability to be resilient has much to do with how we weather so-called liminal periods of our life. It is those times that often arise out of trauma, adversity, or great loss, when our previous way of being no longer serves us, and all our social and cultural values are called into question. Our way of interacting begins to dissolve and we have as yet to find or embrace, a new way of interacting with our environment. Over the years, I have learned to recognize these moments not as periods of disintegration, but rather as opportunities for integration and creativity. We all face these periods of uncertainty in our life, so I thought I would invite you to consider adopting these strategies the next time you find yourself in a state of liminal disequilibrium:
Adopt an IDEA mindset
IDEA is an acronym I created that stands for innovate, delegate, excavate, and accelerate. By learning to get ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’, we open up the possibility to ‘innovate’ in order to find new ways forward through adversity. Second, by ‘delegating’ or deferring to others, we not only invite help into our lives but also stave off isolation by creating bridges of connection. Periods of dissonance provide an ideal time to ‘excavate’, or self-reflect—time to take a close look at what sits in our hearts and eats at our soul. And finally, sooner or later you have to move beyond the liminal threshold of uncertainty, and the sooner you can accelerate that motivation to do that, the better you’ll feel.
Timing is everything… Don’t wait!
I recently heard an interview with Brandon Stanton, the creative genius behind the internationally famous photo blog entitled Humans of New York. As you can imagine, Brandon is often asked by aspiring photographers and creatives what he credits with the phenomenal success of his project, and his advice is to not wait until you have something all figured out before you start. In other words, "You have to start something before you're ready, [and in the process] you learn courage by doing things when you are afraid. Don't wait until you are not afraid before you start."
Harness the thrill of the uncertainty
One thing is for certain, the wake of trauma, adversity, or deep loss, brings with it a debilitating weight of indecision steeped in fear. A characteristic of resilience is having an ability to make decisions without having all the answers figured out first. I believe this comes from a faith that no matter how something works out, you will either have success or you will learn something important about yourself. I once heard Elizabeth Gilbert describe it in this way: “I'm more excited and thrilled by the feeling of the jump rather than the landing… No one knows where he or she is going to the land, we have no control over that, but we do have control of how we feel when we jump.”
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 email@example.com.
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.