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In Praise of Resilience

About a mile and a half into my run this morning, something familiar overcame me—a sense that I was exhausted and couldn’t take another step. It’s been a long week, so I was feeling a little sorry for myself. Still, I was relatively certain I could get through it if I just kept moving forward. Sure enough, after another mile, I felt great, as if I could run all day. The thing is, I’ve done this activity long enough to know that I have it in me to persist. And it's not blind faith. I've pushed myself often enough that I've developed the tenacity to get past the resistance. Occasionally I’m wrong, but then I just stop and walk awhile, which is a pretty great activity in and of itself. I’ve come to count on this physical resilience. I can’t hold it in my pocket, but I know it’s there, that I can keep going when some part of me is shouting that I can’t.

I’m working these days on building that same confidence in my emotional resilience, which isn’t quite as easy. It is never my first inclination when faced with a challenge to just sit peacefully with myself and know I have what I need to move forward. I forget that I carry that resilience with me because it isn’t always obvious. But somewhere in me I believe I have the capacity to get through a hard emotional time, just like I know that I can survive a tough run.

When I started this blog two years ago, I wrote about my friend Lowry, who lived to be 98 years old. Lowry wasn’t perfect by any means, but the inner strength people saw when they met her was resilience at its finest. In her lifetime, she survived poverty, hurricanes, cross-country moves with her small son in tow, family members living in tents in her back yard during the Depression, the loss of her life savings more than once, the deaths of countless relatives and friends, and probably many other things I don’t actually know about.

Most of us have lived a long time and have a wealth of skills and experiences that we can draw on at will.

She was one of the first people I knew who could just keep going. On more than one occasion I watched her assess her strengths and use them to help move herself out of depression or anger or frustration. She would read, listen to music, watch Walter Cronkite, think about what she had achieved in her life, remember the people she loved. These were all elements that made up who she was, and they helped her build the inner strength she knew she could rely on when she needed it most.

I’ve been thinking about Lowry lately, partly because her birthday was in early September (she was born in 1892), but partly because I have been wondering how people are able to pull from their own storehouses to move themselves forward. Our first thought, of course, is that we need others to help us. And certainly, we would be nowhere without the devotion of our friends and families. It’s just that, almost always, we actually have to do the work ourselves. Our resilience doesn't just kick in like an emergency gas tank. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote about this in her book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. "You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience," she says. "Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it." I'm figuring she means that, if we do the work, we can survive and eventually thrive in the face of setbacks or sadness.

Just recently, I let a disappointment throw me into a depressed state. I’ve lived with depression most of my life and I know what its grip feels like when it starts in on me. When I was younger—long before I discovered that Prozac could keep me from an unfixable state of mind—depression became a familiar place. It wasn’t fun, but it was oddly comfortable. I unconsciously practiced feeling hopeless more often than I proactively experimented with possibility. Much therapy and many life experiences later, I know I have a whole tool box of strategies and assets and reminders to utilize when I see the depression coming down the road. But even now I have to remind myself to go to that tool box and start assessing the situation to begin my reset.

I don’t always remember the power of resilience—or even that I have that capability—but when I do, I am very grateful. “Give it another mile,” I think to myself now. “It’s going to be grim for a bit, but very soon you will feel better. You have what it takes. Trust that.”

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