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Resiliency & Uncertainty

In my twenties, I worked a sketchy job with an old leathery man called Hollywood.

No one would tell me how he earned this nickname, but they weren’t shy in describing him as a “meaner than a wet panther.” Apparently, he’d survived a war, a short stint in prison, and the death of his wife. Since that time, he’d pretty much alienated all family and friends with anger and vindictiveness. One evening when Hollywood was over an hour late returning from a task in the forest, the foreman remarked, “I’m not worried. Nothing can kill that guy…he’s resilient as hell!”

Something about this statement bothered me at the time but, honestly, it wasn’t until recently when talking with my friend Bill that I recalled the description of Hollywood as “resilient” and finally understood why I’d been bothered. Bill had said, “You know, people often think of resilience as ‘grit’ or toughing out hardships in silence. In my opinion, resilience is asking for help and learning to rely on whatever resources are available. It’s a practice not a destination.” Hollywood hadn’t been resilient; he’d been mean, miserable, and stubborn.

After this revelation, I asked myself why resilience has been on my mind? The answer is because I need it right now. Life has felt hard. An emotional grind. Don’t get me wrong, I have an abundance of blessings and my problems are high-end compared to many, but this doesn’t change the fact that I’m living beneath a blanket of uncertainty on many levels. And, as we know, uncertainty can be incredibly stressful. In fact, research has demonstrated that facing possible pain is far more stressful than facing known pain! So, I’ve been attempting to practice resilience in a few ways.

First, I share my struggles with people I trust: a counselor (which I recognize is an incredible privilege), a close buddy, my lovely spouse, my parents, even a colleague I know will understand. I’ve felt some relief after each of these conversations and, often times, they share their own struggles and I feel less alone.

Another move I’ve been practicing is acceptance. Before she died from cancer, my friend Emily gave me a bracelet with the words Shikata ga nai engraved on it. This Japanese expression means, “It cannot be helped” and is used to describe a type of deep acceptance that helps preserve dignity in the face of unavoidable tragedy or injustice. For Emily, it did not mean that she was okay with having cancer. Not at all. But she accepted that it was what it was and that beyond taking measure to treat it, she could not change reality. Though I am in NO way comparing my situation to Emily’s, I find acceptance of what is—even when I greatly dislike it—to be relieving. I don’t have to like something to accept that it is what has to be faced.

Also in my twenties, I worked for a Jewish woman in her late 80s who’d survived a Nazi concentration camp as young girl and had gone on to devote her life to helping others heal from trauma. Unlike Hollywood, she seemed to always be laughing and people adored her. I asked her once how she’d managed to end up so grounded. In her slight German accent, she’d replied, “First of all, I’m not always grounded. But there are two things I’ve consistently done that help immensely. First, I find purpose in helping others, which often keeps me out of my own head. The second is that I’ve always found ways of blowing off steam and having fun even in tough times.” Reflecting back on this conversation, I realize how good of advice she gave me, advice that has been collaborated by a lot of research (e.g. people with purpose generally live longer). I’ve discovered that the more orientated I am on being of service to others (whether professionally or personally), the less time I spend worrying about myself.

I’ve also grown resilience through blowing off steam and having fun. I could tell you about the more traditional ways I go about this such as taking long hikes with my dog, practicing martial arts, and even screaming into a pillow when I reach the red zone. But I’d rather tell you about taking my kids to Tournament of Kings, a Las Vegas dinner show that involved medieval characters battling on horses and an array of fantastic explosions. For over an hour, we ravaged our meals like ruffians and cheered and jeered and laughed. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much, but as we strolled out afterward—my voice hoarse from taunting—I realized how much I’d needed a break from being a responsible adult. I’m not “prescribing” a Las Vegas show for resilience, but you get the idea.

Another resiliency practice is the one with which I struggle the most: physical health. When I’m eating cleanly (foods not full of preservatives and that don’t destroy my gut), exercising daily, avoiding excesses of (or abstaining from) alcohol, and getting solid sleep, I function better. No doubt. It’s a simple concept, yet far from easy to apply, particularly when “having fun” and/or temporarily escaping pain is in conflict with “bodily care.” I’m grateful that every day provides a new opportunity for growth.

Last, though far from least, is spirituality. This is a tricky one to discuss because its shape, form, and essence vary so radically from person to person. For me, it’s helpful to make spirituality a type of practice through regular meditations, prayers, intentional journaling, and even reaching out to people I know could use support. I also write and talk (even out loud sometimes) to my late wife, grandparents, and a couple of friends who have passed away. I’m hesitant to write this, but the truth is that it grounds me. A lot.

Another truth is that, on any given day, I might do all of these things or none of them—which is why resilience is a practice and not a static state. It takes effort and sometimes my efforts are better than others.

Ultimately, nothing I do is going to erase uncertainty from my life. It’s part of the human experience. But how I cope with it can improve through practicing resilience.

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