If I were the type of person to have tattoos, I would not have drawings on my body, I would have words instead. There is a Mexican proverb that I love; it goes: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” I long to be the type of person who sprouts and blossoms after a difficulty, that is what I want for myself. The opposite though is true of me – when buried, I decay and rot. This is one thing about my psyche I have to change.
Resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. With all the combined years I have spent in formal education, no-one has ever taught me how to acquire this one crucial life-long skill. I use the word ‘skill’ because I think that is what resilience is, a skill that can be taught and acquired in the same way we are taught how to do long division.
When babies learn to walk, when they get up from the safety of crawling on all fours to explore a new state of being bipedal, they need this skill. Parents encourage this learning to walk even though it is initially fraught with falls. This develops a taught trust. Parents fully get that the child WILL fall, they do not make provisions for the fall. Babies are never equipped with shin pads to cushion their falls. The floor does not get covered with sponges. Babies are trusted to quickly recover from the difficulty of falling. Parents of babies intrinsically understand that in learning to walk babies WILL FALL. When this happens they get given a quick cuddle and sent on their way to try again. Eventually, after all these falls babies learn to walk independently, and, as parents allow the many falls, they inadvertently teach the child their first lesson in resilience. This skill, taught young, is what makes toddlers so fearless. Later, somewhere in the upbringing, children are then taught the opposite: they are taught to avoid situations that might lead to falls. This new cautionary approach to life is what negates the learned resilience of learning to walk.
I am currently going through a difficult time. The event I speak of has happened and passed. It was awful, and I spent a few weeks licking my wounds. Now after the wound-licking I am trying – and failing -to recover. As an adult I have developed the tendency to dwell on my difficulties. I have noticed a pattern of behaviour where I tend to linger in my pain; I overthink and overanalyze the cause of my distress. I have a tendency to throw elaborate pity parties that turn into virtual festivals. I do not focus enough of my resources on recovery.
I am not alone in this. It seems to me modern society is obsessed with standing in front of difficulties and analysing them, as if the difficulty is some macabre painting in a pain museum. I know of people who have encountered difficulties like being hijacked joining support groups where they spend a lot of the time going over and over their awful experiences with people with similar stories. I completely understand that in terms of psychology it initially helps to talk to someone who has had a similar experience to you. Someone who will get how you feel. However I feel that it can become debilitating if you start allowing the hijacking to define you. If you start seeing yourself as the person who is continually going through a hard time. If you label yourself a hijack victim.
But I get offended when I get told not to linger in my pain, when I get instructed to pull myself together. I feel that those who instruct me to be resilient are insensitive. That they do not get the extent of my pain. That if they understood how hard I had fallen, then they would not insist that I get up and walk. I feel they would allow me to crawl close to the ground, and find others who have fallen as badly as me, and would let us crawl together because of our fear of falling again.
Intellectually I know that this approach would not help me long term. Eventually I have to get up, and I figure that it would be harder if I was allowed to wallow in self pity for long. In school I wish someone had taught me that in life difficulties are unavoidable, expected even. That anyone who lives long enough WILL certainly experience difficulty. I wish someone had told me that the difficulties I would encounter would sometimes not hold lessons. That some difficulties would not be of my own making, that they would not require introspection on my part. But also that feeling anger towards the cause of them will not alleviate my pain either. I wish someone had taught me that most times the best thing to do after a difficult situation is to recover quickly. To acknowledge the pain and then quickly put it completely behind you.
We all could learn a lot from one year old’s learning to walk. Their skills in resilience are admirable.
Tell us: have you learnt the ‘lesson’ of resilience?