A death. A hideous diagnosis. A terrible injury. These and other blows from life’s hammer are devastating in the extreme. And many times we look at the human wreckage left in the wake of such experiences and we begin to believe that sometimes there are blows from which we simply cannot recover.
It is common in the human condition, that when things are going well, we cannot imagine them ever going bad again. Likewise, when things are going badly, we simply cannot imagine them ever going well again.
The biggest problem is our perception of time and the nature of human resilience. It is not unusual for a catastrophic loss of health, life, or career, to take just the blink of an eye. But recovery from these blows is seldom as direct. Unlike the neatness of a business plan where the line graph trends conveniently up and to the right, the rise of a human from a fall would more closely resemble a tangled ball of twine. What took seconds to unravel a life, could take the rest of it to put back together.
The highs and lows of life plunk strongly at the poetic strings of our being. Resilience does not. It is often a cold and logical process of picking one’s self off the deck, brushing off the debris of the fall, and starting over. But the consequences of resilience once again deliver the poetry we all desire.
People often seek the miracle path to resilience such as religion and magic. This is not my way. People often seek other people, like a drowning man seeks a lifesaver ring. But, like the drowning man, this path can often lead to the lost person taking down a perfectly happy person.
I have fallen victim to the temptation to seek shelter form the storm in the form of other people. It is a quick and comforting feeling. But it is not resilience, and it fixes nothing. If anything, it creates a dependence that is unstable.
Resilience. It is a bit of a buzz word these days. It is being sold as a kind of mystery only recently unwound. It is another ‘new age’ meme ripe for the usual exploitation. Search on Amazon for the word resilience and see how many self-help books pop up. Countless sermons presented from countless pulpits it is one god or another that is the source of our resilience, not us.
Personally, I believe that we all need a little help coping with catastrophic loss from time to time. Sometimes it is a caring conversation, sometimes it is a hug, sometimes it is more. Sometimes it is a prayer or a chant or a dance. Sometimes it is a series of electronic messages at any time of day or night. But we should not expect a fix out of these. These things can soften the symptoms of loss, but they do not resolve anything. The resilience required to resolve the cause of these symptoms can only come from within.
OK, so resilience is how one resolves the cause of the pain of loss, and that this resilience comes from within. But what is it?
It is not the mystery one reads about in these ‘new age’ self-help books. It is a combination of awareness, focus, and fortitude. It is an awareness of the feelings generated by loss, an ability to focus on what specifically brings on those feelings, and it is the strength to meet those feelings with an inner resolve to pass through them. It is no more than this. No poetry, no mystery. It is not even a craft. It is a simple process. It is a simple process that is seldom easy to master.
There is no more important a starting point in developing resilience in the face of catastrophic loss than awareness. What we cannot see we cannot understand, and what we cannot understand we cannot resolve. When I say awareness I mean observing and identifying our feelings and what instigate those feelings. Focus is what we need to really understand profoundly and in detail the feelings we become aware of. And awareness and focus make possible methods to identify and understand our feelings and wat causes them. And if we can do that, we can use that to bolster our fortitude or resolve to process those feelings in a way that reduces their impact and, over time, reduces the frequency of their visits.
Personally, I use these things to process feelings of sadness from loss. When a feeling arrives I now recognize it because I am ware of my feelings. I am aware of it and see it in detail for what it is. I then use my resolve to give it a name. and once I give it a name… I take its power and it goes. For instance, I might be in a situation with a friend who is poorly and I suddenly feel deeply sad. I open the sadness and recognize it. “Ah, hello sadness. I know what you are.” I think to myself. I then apply some focus. “I see you are triggered by my friend’s condition and it has sparked a memory that awakens you.’ I then remind myself I have faced such sadness before. “I see you sadness, and I know why you have returned. I call you The Sadness of Illness and recognize you for what you are. I no longer need you.” And as that thought passes my mind’s eye, the feeling dissipates like a cloud of steam. I have spotted it, unmasked it, and taken its power. It has nothing left and goes.
This is not the entire story of resilience. It is dozens if not hundreds of little processes like this that make up the body of practices we call resilience. New ones are discovered and created every day. The key distinction between these practices and the more mystic approach. The latter practices focus on the emotional consequences of loss, the former vanquish the causes of them. The latter makes you feel better but does nothing to stop them from coming back. The former take longer to master, but they eventually make it possible to move on, to live with loss. Furthermore, they make you more resilient when the next loss comes along. Yes, there will be more loss. It is inevitable.
This is a photo take from Green Mountain, the big island of Hawaii, facing east over the area known as Kapoho. My home, Kipuka is in the mid foreground. On June 2, 2018 all of the land in this photo was covered by 10 meters thick of molten lava. Everything was completely destroyed.