Individuals, communities, and cultures can cultivate their ability to resile, to bounce back. Those who develop resiling skills are able to move from resisting change to embracing change, from being to becoming, from post traumatic stress disorder to post traumatic growth.[iii] -Andrew Groeschel
Author: Andrew Groeschel, MFT Intern
The World is a fraught place.
We face challenges every day. Our politicians wrestle with so-called “fiscal cliffs” in the wake of a divisive presidential election. Our communities struggle through the aftermath of incomprehensible gun violence. Those of us in the helping professions and the clients we serve are tested at every turn. Rich or poor, famous or not, we all grapple with a multiplicity of daunting trials, pregnant as they may be with opportunities for growth.
Many of us are trying to overcome personal mistreatments and their hold on us from the past. Others are longing to deepen our marriages in spite of a seeming lack of awe inspiring models of lifelong love. Maybe we are searching for existential meaning in the pit of despair.
What are we to do? How can we forward through the perceived muddle of such challenging events?
Words are not unlike vegetation. Taken together they become a kind of ecology of language. Our word choices might lead us to think of problems or to imagine opportunities. What word seeds might we plant to enact positive change in 2013? How might these words more deeply inspire us to harvest an ethos of aspiration and clear eyed hope? My goal in writing this article is to plant just such a conversational seed by focusing our attention on one word in particular: Resiliency.
In the spirit of Viktor Frankl and others before him, Dr. Albert Siebert (1934–2009), the founder of the Resiliency Center, explored the human capacity for resiliency. He strived not to become a better researcher in the causes and treatments of mental illness, but to better “understand people so mentally healthy they can survive extreme life adversities without becoming psychological casualties, and emerge stronger than before.”[i] The key, according to Siebert, is resiliency.
Siebert describes a resilient person as being “able to recover quickly from misfortune; able to return to original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched out of shape.” Resiliency, he continues, is “a human ability to recover quickly from disruptive change, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways.”[ii]
I have found Siebert’s work inspiring in the way he aims to move beyond seeing resiliency as merely a noun we either have or do not have. Instead, he invites us to enter more deeply into its ecology as a verb. Individuals, communities, and cultures can cultivate their ability to resile, to bounce back. Those who develop resiling skills are able to move from resisting change to embracing change, from being to becoming, from post traumatic stress disorder to post traumatic growth.[iii]
One can see resiliency’s muted hopes submerged in a language of the problems and tragedies of the day. Phrases grow in the lexicon and slowly, almost imperceptibly take hold until suddenly one morning we wake up thinking: “That’s just the way things are.” We are awash in a sea of one-liners that shift our locus of control from the internal and manageable to the external and insurmountable. “How can we solve this together?” moves to “those people are the problem,” or “if only my wife behaved differently,” or, or, or….
People cultivate various levels of resilient behavior according to Seibert. Those with low levels tend to see the world in black and white terms. Such people often engage in judgmental “us vs. them” thinking. Not unlike our recent presidential election, common ground is disavowed. The candidates almost impulsively defined the other as negative and opposite. A pitched battle of judgmental thinking around what Siebert would call scripted identities (“liberal” or “conservative”) ensued.
What if we imagine a World during the last presidential election in which Mitt Romney and Barak Obama sat in awe inspired admiration of each other’s efforts at different points in their careers to improve our health care system? In such an exchange we can envision them acknowledging their points of agreement, opening to curiosity about their differing views, and skillfully honoring those differences. An opportunity was lost to resile and to join together more closely, liberal and conservative, in the face of human created challenges with infinitely achievable human solutions. How might we strive for something different in our discussions of Sandy Hook or our fiscal debate? In our own relationships?
In my work as a couples counselor, I often see similar dynamics unfold. Partners negatively define each other as “demeaned opposites” instead of fellow humans with uniquely different and potentially inspiring, complimentary sets of identifications. I find myself frequently returning to the well of Seibert’s findings in such instances. He reminds me to see the ways each partner expresses resiliency. The very fact of their presence, together (!) in my office inspires an awareness of their capacities, however latent they may be. As Siebert teaches us, resilient people are willing to seek help when they can’t find the answers themselves.
Building on these latent yet ever quivering capacities for resilient unfolding, I can orient them toward some of the other skills Siebert encourages us to cultivate:
· The ability to hold opposites (pessimism-optimism, fluidity-groundedness, sameness-difference)
· The awareness that personality traits are not constant but contextual and changeable
· A talent for serendipity – using one’s wisdom to convert mishap into opportunity
· A deep mind-body connection
· A healthy sense of:
Self-confidence (what you expect from yourself)
Self-esteem (your emotional opinion of yourself)
Self-concept (your ideas about yourself)[iv]
I have found that the more I, along with the couples, families, and individuals with whom I work tune into and hone such resiliency skills, the more we almost alchemically grow in our felt sense of “being equal” to the challenges of life. As therapist and client resile alike, step by step this felt sense of being equal to life overtakes the downward gaze of long faced resignation.
In the coming year how might we as individuals, as loving partners, collaborative colleagues, and caring friends and even as communities, whole cultures, and countries seek to tap into our own unique resiliency capabilities?
I aspire to engage daily in this resiliency reminder and, in my own local here-now way, to contribute to a more hopeful and vibrant ecology of positive change. In turn and one little word-seed at a time, we can all inspire each other to cultivate our collective resiliency together. I look forward to meeting you along the way somewhere in the garden of 2013. Where will it be? What wonderful things might transpire?
[i] Siebert: The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure, and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2005), p. 5.
[ii] See http://www.resiliencycenter.com/definitions.shtml
[iii] Siebert (2005), p. 193.
[iv] Siebert (2005)
Andrew Groeschel, MFT Intern currently has an office in Oakland where he applies his uniquely strength based, aspiration focused, and spiritually nourishing approach to counseling with couples, families, and individuals. You can read more about him here and he can be contacted by phone 510.606.9981 or by e-mail email@example.com.