On Resilience

Things seem to happen to me in waves. Sometimes the events are serendipitous like an old friend calling me after I’ve had a bad day; sometimes the universe just knows what I need. Other times though, the event are more sinister, like in a Murphy’s law kind of way. For example, I was driving the other day and a car pulled out right in front of me nearly causing an accident. Literally one minute later, another car almost sideswiped me because he was on his phone not paying attention as he was making a left hand turn.

Part of me wonders if I look for events and arbitrarily attribute meaning to the patterns that I find. Like, when you think that you see the same number everywhere you go. A while back, I had a friend who was convinced that the number 27 was everywhere–more prevalent than any other number. I started seeing it too. License plates, billboards, phone numbers, even the time! But finally I exclaimed, “This is ludicrous! We are just seeing the number because we are looking for it. It could happen with another number too, like 33”. Right then we passed a sign with the number 33, which really freaked my friend out.

If you’re still with me, you’re probably wondering what the hell am I talking about. I’ve got one more story before I get to my point, so stick with me.

There’s a little boy that I know. I don’t know him personally, I don’t even know his name. I just watch him (not in a creepy way), but I watch him because he’s a special kid. He has pretty severe ADHD, which you don’t know how hard it is until you are hands-on with a kid who has it. So, I watch this little boy play with the other kids, but he’s not so much playing as he is being played with. The other kids don’t like him because he’s not like them. He can’t pay attention, and he’s always moving around, and the kids make fun of him. They tease him, calling him names and playing tricks on him. Eventually, I see a shift. It’s very subtle, but I can tell something is up with the little boy. He starts to get quiet. He lies his head down on the table. He won’t eat his snack. Then, he lies down on the bench. He just can’t take it anymore.

I don’t know about the boy’s home life, and I don’t want to say anything bad about his parents because I know they do their best. But, they’re from a rougher neighborhood where I know resources are stretched thin. The effect of multiple disadvantages for this little boy are enough separately, but together the negative impact is compounded. I worry about this little boy because it’s hard to stand up in the face of trouble, and it’s even worse when you feel completely oppressed.

So here’s my point: if this kid’s going to survive in this cruel world, he’s going to need resilience, right? And it’s easy for us to believe that you just choose to be resilient. “Get back in the saddle. Keep truckin’. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” If he just does it, then his problem will be solved. But, that’s not how it works. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality doesn’t work for people with cumulative disadvantages. It’s harder for some people to just be resilient.

I know. People could argue, “Well, we all have our own crosses to bear. Just because something is harder for one person than it is for another doesn’t mean that the task is impossible”. That’s true. I agree with that. In fact, I was reading a blog post in Psychology Today about resilience called, “Why Some People Are More Resilient Than Others: A recent study discovered two factors that characterize resilient people”. In this post, Denise Cummins, Ph.D. summarizes the study, which says that the two factors for resilience are mastery and support systems. Cummins says that the good news about these two factors is that we have at least some power over these factors.

Mastery is the perceived sense of control or influence of life circumstances, meaning if you believe you are in control of your life, you have “mastery”. This could be seen as something that you either have or don’t have, but you can actually develop a sense of control in your life. Two suggestions Cummins makes are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness. CBT in a nutshell teaches you how to think differently–to change your thoughts into positive, healthy thoughts. And Mindfulness teaches you to stay in the present moment instead of worrying about the future or past.

The social support system is another thing that we have a lot of control over. If we surround ourselves with healthy friends, we will likely be more resilient. But, even a large support system doesn’t ensure resilience. In fact, if your support system is replete with people who are critical and unreceptive, you may suffer cognitive avoidance and suppression.

Let’s look back at the little boy I told you about. His support system is definitely struggling right now, so he needs some new supportive friends. But that may be hard due to his age and restricted access to friends. Plus, he may not have the skills to build new, healthy friendships. And while I can’t be sure about his level of mastery, I believe that it’s difficult to assert yourself as a child facing peer rejection. So yes, technically these factors may be within his control, but if someone were to teach him these skills, the little boy would be much more successful.

One last story, and I’ll wrap it up.

There was this young woman in her early 20’s named Kerrie. She was bisexual, but she didn’t tell many people because her adopted family was very religious and strongly disapproved of homosexuality. She knew her birth mother, who was a drug addict and a fairly unhealthy influence. Kerrie was extremely shy and reserved, so she had trouble making friends. She was also diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and would sometimes cut herself in an attempt to find control over her emotional pain. In college, this woman started branching out more, and she was trying to be more open about her sexuality. While there were several people who were very supportive and receptive to her, there was also a lot of backlash for her sexual orientation. Some people started shunning Kerrie out of their groups, making excuses not to hang out with her. Others were far more blatant about their disapproval, calling her names and telling her that she should be ashamed of herself. Two weeks into her second year at college, Kerrie rented a hotel room and committed suicide.

 

Anger, hatred and ignorance can lead us all to do and say things that are pretty ugly. In this young woman’s case, people acted foolishly and selfishly, and while I don’t blame them for her choice, I do hold them responsible for their hateful actions.

I do believe that Kerrie could have been more resilient. I think that even with all of the disadvantages in her life, she could have worked really hard to achieve her goals. But I also believe that she couldn’t have done it without some help.

We can leave everyone up to their own resilience. We can justify our anger and rude behavior by placing the responsibility on others. Or we can put the responsibility on ourselves to put aside our anger and hate–to be kind and respectful and maybe even a little helpful to others.

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