Building Resilience for our Personal Pandemic
The first few years after my father died, I felt like I was slowly climbing out of a deep well. Despite an immense sense of trepidation about how to move forward, I believed the worst was behind me. No matter how cruel the future was, it would not hold a candle to those agonizing years. This tragedy would ultimately be a permanent springboard to brighter days. Through therapy and my first genuine hardship, I instilled a mental strength that was unshakeable. I felt like the poster child for resilience.
But years of more disappointment ensued. Myriad health issues, professional challenges, broken dreams, and the loss of other close friends demystified the fantasy that I was personally immune to despair. The notion I was capable of quickly rebounding was also divorced from reality.
Recently, the pandemic helped me realize I was not alone. Psychologists have seen that patients with whom they regularly work on issues of resilience are still quite frail. Mary Fife has been a New York based psychologist for over 30 years. She counseled thousands of patients through multiple recessions, the attacks on 9/11, and the current pandemic. The one common thread she sees among her patients currently is lack of resilience.
“There is no doubt this is more agonizing than anyone could have imagined,” Mary tells me over Zoom. “But I thought the conversations we had, the lessons I gave them, and the overall progress I saw that New Yorkers (of all people) would have the resilience to get through this time. This is the curve ball I have been preparing them for.”
It is a common ethos that resilience is deep in the bones of America – that we are a people able to recoil from despair and eventually cultivate a stealthy and healthy existence. In Stephen Flynn’s 2007 book The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation, Mr. Flynn argued “resilience has historically been one of the United States’ great national strengths. It was the quality that helped tame a raw continent and then allowed the country to cope with the extraordinary challenges that occasionally placed the American experiment in peril… Americans have drawn strength from adversity. Each generation bequeathed to the next a sense of confidence and optimism about the future.”
But this belief that we are a populace of malleable and quick adjusters is not true. While the mythology of a nation of ragtag, resilient citizens remains, Americans feel much more paralyzed about bouncing back from a setback and an ability to prevail through hard times. Many have raised offspring who are far more fragile than them.
Even before the pandemic, 54 percent of Americans felt bleak about their country’s future. Forty-four percent believe the average standard of living for middle class families will be much worse in 30 years. Thirty-eight percent believed there is no way to make things better in this country.
First, in order to be resilient we must possess all components of resilience. In 1989, the developmental psychologist Emmy Werner published the results of a 32-year project on resilience. She followed a group of 698 individuals in Hawaii from before birth through their third decade of life. During this time, she monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, or family problems.
Ms. Werner concluded that resilience depends on a number of factors. Being resilient consists of having a healthy response to your environment – meeting the world on your own terms. It also means seeking out new experiences, being independent, and developing an internal locus of control – having a belief that you, and not your circumstances, affect your achievements.
Resilience requires a bit of luck as well. Miss out on one of these variables and it’s possible your sense of resilience evaporates or never fully develops.
Secondly, much has become increasingly placed under the moniker of resilience. Resilience is an alluring way to be adaptive, and a way to signal pragmatism through peril. It became the cooler cousin of grit and resolve. A trendy virtue signal to your friends when you have gone through trauma. You can profess to your social media world you trekked through a road of wretchedness and have now developed a mindset incapable of being railroaded by bad experiences. That you heroically survived being jostled around by life.
Almost any field has inserted resilience into their mission statement: public institutions, the UN, the Department of Homeland Security, Facebook, L’Oreal, Home Depot. In 2011, Domino’s argued outsourcing their delivery system was key to their mission of resilience.
Resilience has been tossed around around the state of college and campus protest. Psychologists have used the term “declining student resilience” to describe the current state of young adults. Fox New anchors described protestors and looters as “Americans of negative resilience.”
As journalist Parul Sehgal explains, “We have an ancient attraction to stories of resilience, but recently, the word itself has achieved a more prosaic popularity. Deriving from the Latin for ‘to jump again,’ resilience has sprung into new life as a catchword in international development and Silicon Valley and among parenting pundits and TED-heads.”
While the concept of resilience has gained notoriety, its actual execution did not. Over the years I’ve noticed we enjoy the image of being resilient, but don’t want to do the continued work to build the resilience muscle. One can gain enormous cultural currency by concocting your own phoenix-like story where you rose from the ashes and glided into success.
We’ve aimed to eliminate negative experiences rather than neutralize their impact on our lives. resilience is adjusting in the wake of deep adversity, trauma, or stress. It is not avoiding any bleak emotions. But that is what so many seek to do.
Our ability to customize our life and our children has deluded us into believing that, while we promote the idea of resilience, we don’t need to develop the psyche to actually be resilient. That talking or posting about the power of persisting and adapting is solely enough to actually embody those principles. We realized there is a steep hill to climb, but pretended to reach its summit.
Our infatuation with resilience has also pushed us into the arrival fallacy trap: the idea that once one reaches their destination, whether it be getting out of a rough patch or achieving a personal or professional goal, a life of eternal happiness or absence of struggle will be theirs.
So often when we mention being resilient we are often momentarily elastic. We fail to continue to utilize this mindset, because either we think we have mastered the art of resilience or largely because we believe there is no future use for it. Our difficult moment in life is over and therefore we are not in need of enduring and adjusting.
“It scares me how little our resilience muscles are formed. I worry what will happen if the pandemic persists well into next year,” Mrs. Fife tells me.
It’s clear we all need to build better approaches toward resilience. The issue isn’t our focus or how much we value resilience. It’s not the length to which we discuss it or attach it to broader goals. It’s how we actually ingrain it into our DNA, making it a sustainable quality through the peaks and valleys of life. We need to begin to reconceptualize resilience.
We can start by understanding the value pain can bring. Appreciating that sitting with our hardship can be more beneficial than finding quick tricks to evade our sorrow. No matter how callous this world may seem, one’s distress can yield future benefits. Pain can bring meaning and perspective. Pain can make us better assess reality in social situations. And pain can eventually heal deeper wounds unnoticed until one suffers.
Exposure to pain makes us stronger for future crises. Research shows that “stress inoculation training”—where humans learn to understand their rage, fear, despair and anxiety by being exposed to stimuli that cause these feelings — is effective in creating emotional resilience.
We can view resilience as a seesaw, where negative experiences tip the scale toward bad outcomes, and positive experiences skew it toward good outcomes. Many people during this pandemic are dealing with financial stress, isolation, severe depression, health issues, and loved ones hurting.
The scale is clearly tilted toward the negative side. While it might be hard to unload the negative weight, we can amp up the positive components of our life (i.e. our family, friends, our ability to learn, nature, etc.).
Resilience is a vexing psychological challenge. Determining whether you have it or not largely depends not on any particular cognitive test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of hardship, you won’t know how resilient you are. But this global pandemic ensures very few have this luxury.
This pandemic is far from over. There will be obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that test our resilience, or the lack of it. The gut punches and upper cuts will continue after COVID-19 subsides. But I am confident this doesn’t mean we live a life absent of bliss. It is up to all of us to progress in a way where we can wade through such turbulence whenever and however it enters our life.
When I lost my father 12 years ago, I also spent so many of the following years seeking pity and spurning any attempt to mature. I rejected any idea that this event could help me blossom into a better human being. In the past few years I’ve worked with my therapist and close friends to reshape my perspective on this loss.
Upon further reflection, I was able to be truly available for others when they lost a loved one. I’ve discovered this tragedy as an opportunity to gain a sense of perspective around death not available to many my age. I know I gained a sense of independence I would not have developed and found strong mentors I wouldn’t have sought out if it weren’t for my father’s passing.
Reframing my experience helped me cultivate a life of more meaning, love, connection, and emotional strength.
I am grateful this provided me with a bit of buoyancy through this difficult period. For the world looks much less dark. I know I am using this moment of resilience to build the fortitude to deal with any future curve ball that comes my way.