by N. Alexander, A. Opoku-Boateng, C. Ray, C. Thompson
What do Harriet Tubman, Winston Churchill, Anne Frank, Ellen White, and Victor Frankl all have in common? Actually, a close reading of their lives would suggest that they actually held several things in common. Yet, one overarching commonality could be encapsulated in one word: Resilience. Each one of these towering figures exhibited exceptional examples of resilience that we might all draw meaning from. The challenge for us in the midst of the tumultuous times we face today is to develop a modicum of resilience to help us to thrive from day to day.
What Is Resilience?
Research tells us that resilience is the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life, and come back at least as strong as before; and possibly even stronger. Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events, or failure overcome them, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal and continue to move toward their goals.
Why Is Resilience So Elusive?
There are assessments and studies such as ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) and others that attempt to figure out what makes an individual resilient in the face of adversity. Because the truth is that not everyone handles trials in the exact same way. While one person may have the ability to face a challenge with fortitude, the same challenge may be crushingly daunting for another.
It would be nice if we could mass-manufacture and bottle resilience. Just what goes into the “secret sauce”? Social scientists have some guesses about some of the ingredients: modeling, learned adaptive coping, social support from at least one source, etc. Yet even within the same family, comparing children raised in the same household, we find individual differences in how people handle stress.
This is why comparisons that insist that “if I did it, then so can you” are so fundamentally flawed. Not everyone is working with the same toolbox of emotional coping mechanisms as everyone else. What may seem like one person’s small triviality may be another’s crippling impediment.
Resilience in the Bible
When we think about resilience and the Bible, we don’t have to look hard or long to find examples in scripture. Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Jeremiah, and so many others demonstrated remarkable examples of resilience. Then there’s our savior, Jesus. Jesus certainly demonstrated resilience. Then there are countless scriptures that provide encouragement and insight related to resilience. Paul said that “suffering produces perseverance” (Rom. 5:3 NIV). James tells us “that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4 NIV). Yet, the very core of the plan of redemption teaches us that sin has torn the image of God and the divine plan away from humanity, but that God through Christ restores us according to his love.
Assessment & Acceptance
When we reflect on the violence that has been inflicted in our nation in the recent past, we are forced to ask ourselves what we can do about it. What can we do to change it? At the outset, the answer that we may initially have is, “Nothing.” We cannot change these monsters called hate, racism, xenophobia, and the like that have existed long before us.
This leviathan of conflicts has consumed our lives, our nation and our world—and will continue to intimidate and slay many more. How do we know this? Well, even a broad survey of history yields the reality that the powers-that-be are as consistent as the coming and going of the four seasons. The unjust, apathetic, bigoted, racist, selfish, oppressive perspectives that dominate the grand systems of the world will not be eradicated with the wave of a magic wand. This is a sad reality that causes a justifiable anger; with the loss of each innocent life, prematurely and needlessly terminated.
We are tempted to hide in denial filled with platitudes like, “If I put my head down and color in between the lines it won’t happen to me.” I can try to bargain my way through the reality of injustice. It still won’t change. Consider accepting the reality that the nation/system/world/ simply is “_____.” And this evil of “_______” exists. You fill in the blanks. This is our reality.
We cannot change the people that perpetuate the problems. This is where we introduce the concept of acceptance. Identifying and internalizing the reality as it is, then we can shift our perspective. We can shift our focus and perspective to the exhilarating conclusion that despite the trauma that now is a part of our DNA, we are still here! Though we have been harmed, we maintain the ability to influence every aspect of our community in addition to other communities. Perhaps unintentionally we exemplify Resilience.
Strategies for Resilience
Resilience is similar to having shocks on your car. When you hit a bump in the road, your car doesn’t collapse because of the bumps, thanks to the shocks on your car. One major key to becoming more resilient is to establish self-care practices. These practices help us to be healthy and help us monitor our health by consistently checking in with ourselves. We recommend that you do whatever allows you to become more flexible and creative and emotionally secure in the midst of hardship.
- Create a healthy morning routine. Take five to ten minutes in the morning and create the necessary space in your brain for all that you will need to process that day. Try taking deep breaths, or have a brain-dump writing session. Think about things that you’re grateful for, and take some long deep breaths. This is a strategy for waking your brain up slowly and setting the stage for the way you intend to operate that day. NOTE: This happens before you check your phone and even before your morning devotion.
- Assess your list of available resilience resources. We can take the stress of life; it’s only when we can’t access the resources that the crises we face become unbearable. Make a list of all the resources at your disposal. Make it a point to maximize the use of at least one of those resources. Also list resources that you may want to pursue.
- Pursue resources that you might not have immediate access to. As you assess your list of resources, you may notice that there are some resources that aren’t immediately accessible to you. Maybe it would mean doing a google search or finding that business card that you got at an event last year. Take the time to pursue the additional resources that may not be at your fingertips at this very moment. Those additional resources might prove to be very useful.
- Establish a safe, secure support system. When we talk about a support system, that means having a circle of two to five people to sort through difficult things that are happening to you. The safety and security element here are key, though, because sometimes there are people in your inner circle who aren’t necessarily safe. You want to be careful to talk things over with people who help you process the challenges you’re facing with healthy approaches.
- Engage a licensed and credentialed mental health provider. Therapy helps us to “make meaning” of the crises we experience in life in ways that serve us but don’t harm us. Therapy gives us the ability to create new stories that center in health and hope. It’s important to stress here that this is different from leaning on a support system. Mental health providers are trained professionals in the science of mental and emotional health. Credentials matter.
- Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Drink lots of water. Eat healthy, whole foods. Exercise regularly. You’ve heard all of this before. What you may not have heard is that these are essential strategies that help us to maintain emotional health and wellness.
- Practice self-compassion. To be compassionate with ourselves is the ability to be gentle, have grace, and fully care for our own hearts. It means not being so critical for the mistakes and failures that we’ve made. Learn to embrace yourself as you would a dear friend, flexible and accommodating of your full humanity.
- Frame your crisis in healthy spirituality. There are things that we cannot control in life. Therefore, the act of surrendering to God is a source of power. It helps us to connect with the stress in our life in a way that allows us to acknowledge our own limitations while drawing support from the unlimited strength of divinity. Faith in God also helps us to gain acceptance and make meaning. When we contextualize our crisis in a healthy understanding of the wider story of our relationship to God and God’s work in the world, then that gives perspective beyond ourselves.
What’s Your Why?
It was Viktor Frankl who said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’” Maybe in another space we’ll talk more about finding our “why” and how it makes us more resilient. Nevertheless, as we have explored here, at the core of resilience and mental/emotional wellness in crisis is our ability to make meaning and to find clarity and transcendence in the midst of instability and hardship. Those who are resilient have settled in their minds that there’s got to be more than just the pain of now. One gentleman posted on social media recently saying, “It’s been five years since 2020 started.” It is true that this year has thrown some horrendous challenges in our path. Nevertheless, we are still here, and we are learning to make meaning in the midst of these challenging times. We are reminded to echo the sentiments of the old folks who used to sing, “I just can’t give up now. Come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy, but I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”
Natalie Alexander is a licensed professional counselor, and founder of Healing Grace Counselling Services LLC. Her work is focused on interpersonal relationships and the factors that influence the healing in communities.
Akua K. Boateng, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist, mental health expert, and professor in Philadelphia, PA. Contact her at https://www.akuakboateng.com or @akuakboateng.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist currently serving as president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Christopher C. Thompson, DMin, is the author of six books, and an adjunct professor at Oakwood University. He and his wife, Tracy, have one son, Christopher II.