Resilience in the Face of Hardship and Trauma
As a chaplain and spiritual counselor, I work daily with people whose resilience impresses me. Homeless, struggling to let go of one addiction after another, or grieving the loss of loved ones or marriages or jobs, many of them chronically ill or in pain, these people nonetheless find a way to keep on going, to survive another day. They long to feel better; they want to heal.
Not that they never experience despair or curse their hunger or the cold. They do. Some days, they want to give up. Some days I want to give up, and my life’s easy compared to theirs.
For more than a decade, I’ve ministered to people with addictions and those whose lives are filled with tragedy and trauma. Through trainings, books, and videos, I’ve studied the effects of trauma on our bodies, minds, and souls. I understand that trauma and addiction change our brains in ways that make it difficult to build a life, to take care of our bodies, to manage our behavior, or to connect with others. Some bruised and battered individuals kill themselves with drugs and neglect, while others go on to found businesses and nonprofits, to nurture children of their own, to tenderly care for aging parents, and to fill our world with beauty.
How do they do it? Why do some make it while others don’t? What gives them strength and perseverance?
Building Meaningful Lives
By themselves, perseverance and survival are not resilience. Resiliency is the capacity to build a meaningful and joyful life out of hardship, powerlessness, and tragedy. Resilient people have been through difficult times and still manage to respect themselves and love those around them. Some people seem to have a natural resilience, as if it were in their genes. For others, nurturing grandparents or teachers may have made the difference, and there’s always counseling or meditation to help mend our hearts and heal our souls. We can learn to be resilient, even if we don’t come by it naturally.
That’s why curricula, tip sheets, and books are written about how we can build resilience in ourselves and our children. For instance, the Canadian Child Care Federation offers provides resources for parents,  the School Quest website offers advice about resilience,  and entire websites are devoted to teaching resilience. 
But what are they trying to teach?
What Is Resilience?
In their article “Critical Abilities Related to the Development of Resilience,” authors Darlene Hall and Jennifer Pearson list seven attributes of resilience they believe should be taught to children. These are:
- regulating emotions,
- controlling our impulses,
- slowing down enough to analyze a situation,
- being realistically optimistic,
- believing in ourselves,
- feeling empathy,
- and reaching out for help.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown’s list includes some of the items already mentioned, such as problem solving and asking for help, but adds connection with others and social support.  Kenneth R. Ginsburg’s “Seven Curcial C’s of Resilience” also includes connection. Close relationships, he believes, help us feel safe and secure. 
Clearly, we can learn to slow down and manage our emotions without the support of a loving community, but other aspects of resilience depend on a supportive social structure. If a child lives in a family where people neglect or abuse one another, how can she develop healthy relationships? How will she learn to trust teachers or friends?
According to the United States government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway, resilience “is not an inherent trait.”  We need to develop and nurture it in our children and one another. How do we do that? By building strong connections, says the government fact sheet, and mirroring feelings, expressing love and support. We create caring and compassionate community.
The Need for Community
If such connection and support are vital for resilience, and if we think resilience is such a good idea, why don’t we focus on creating a society in which the suffering that breaks us down and tears us apart – like abuse, war, and terrorism – doesn’t exist? Failing that, why don’t we focus on nurturing and healing those who suffer from the traumas we can’t, or won’t, eradicate?
The answer to that is complex, I’m sure, and I don’t pretend to understand it fully, yet I think the core reason we fail to care for the poor and vulnerable among us is because we are all wounded and broken. Instead of developing resiliency, however, many of us build walls, grow numb, and get lost in anger and fear. We project our shame onto others, seeing them as the problem. Why would we want to help someone else heal when we don’t think they deserve it? After all, we probably don’t even think we deserve such kindness and compassion.
Is there a way to change this?
The Importance of Spirituality
In all the lists and curricula developed to enhance resilience, I believe something is missing. Brené Brown speaks to it when she writes, “Without exception, spirituality . . . emerged as a component of resilience.” That doesn’t mean we must believe in a god, necessarily. I’ve known some immensely spiritual atheists. Brown herself speaks of spirituality as being a connection we feel with with some power greater than we are, a connection based on love, kindness, and compassion. I would add that spirituality is the capacity to wonder, to question, to hold sacred whatever is in front of us, to connect with a wide and collective sense of purpose and meaning, and to love ourselves and the world with a fierce and gentle caring.
Without spirituality, resilience is a fragile thing. With it, we can face anything, even our own deaths.
I see this clearly in the dying patients at the hospital where I work. Their families, too, either show a strength and resilience grounded in a deep connection with spirituality, or they succumb to denial or greed and fall apart.
Giving in to Fear
One patient I knew had beaten a previous bout of cancer through positive thinking and chemical treatments. After recovering from his debilitating treatments, he felt good. He was working, had energy to fix up his house, enjoyed time with friends. He felt vibrant and whole and never imagined the cancer would return.
But it did. Suddenly, he started breaking bones; some ribs, his hip. He could no longer walk. The cancer had spread throughout his skeleton. His doctor could offer him radiation to relieve some of the pain, perhaps, but it would not give him more time.
The man didn’t believe his doctor. He was still in shock. Just a month ago, he’d been fine. How could he be so sick all of sudden? How could be dying? Surely there was some way out.
I went to see this man not because he had asked for a chaplain, but because others thought it would be a good idea. That first time, he kicked me out. But when staff asked me to try again, he welcomed me. He spoke of his pain, his fear, his sorrow. He sought answers, and realized that all he had were questions. Tentatively, he considered the possibility that he might lose this battle with cancer, that he might die soon. As he spoke, he started to explore his feelings and hopes. He cried.
But the next day, he kicked me out again. From one of the nurses, I learned that his mother had been angry about my visit.
“He needs hope,” she had said. “He needs to hear that he’ll be okay.” No one was to talk to him about dying or suggest the treatments wouldn’t cure him. He would make himself better with positive thinking and force of will.
And maybe he’ll succeed. Who am I to say such power of will or positivity doesn’t exist? It’s not my place to take hope away. I’ve heard stories of miraculous healings. Though I’ve never witnessed one, that doesn’t mean they don’t happen, and I would never suggest that miracles are impossible.
Yet what is the most important healing here? Death will find us all one day. Is a week or a year or even five years of physical life so important that we must wall our emotions off from our conscious awareness, pretend we are well when we are not? When we cling in desperation to one more day, we sometimes give up our inner peace and happiness. Do we really want to gain the world but lose our souls?
Perhaps hospital rooms are not the best places to explore resilience. Yet when death is near, or when illness and injury lead to permanent change, the first thing we need to do is accept reality. Optimism is important, but only if it is grounded in what is true. In the face of death and loss, we need a resilience that will allow us to accept life as it is and to embrace change. Then will we have the power to create a beloved community of support that can carry us through whatever journey we must make. In that community is resilience, a resilience that can hold us and help us hold others. When we accept and honor our deaths, we have the capacity to love those around us until we can no longer hold onto anything, even breath.
Love and Grace
What allows us to make this transition, or to accept any loss or trauma and move on, is the love and grace that are spiritual, that are holy and divine. That is what really helps us cope with shock and devastation. Some people fear death because they are afraid God will punish them, that they’ll end up in Hell, but most people I’ve talked with find comfort from knowing that something of a god exists and is with them no matter what.
That was the case for another patient I worked with. Her illness had lasted a long time, so the situation was not the same, yet even so, she had a relationship with God that held her through tragedies and losses over a long life. She’d been on dialysis for years, and her heart was reaching the point where it couldn’t take the treatments anymore. The doctors offered her a few options, but none sounded very hopeful, and they all sounded unpleasant. She opted to stop dialysis, which would kill her within about a week.
The Resilience in Letting Go
This was not an easy decision. Her husband had dementia, and she didn’t know how he would manage. Her children had their own struggles, and she had grandchildren she wanted to watch grow and become adults. But she understood she had to let go. Worries and plans and projects didn’t matter anymore. She believed in a god who watched over her and who would watch over her family, as well. Throughout the process of her dying, which I was honored to be able to witness, she rallied enough strength and courage to share her love with her family. Eventually, though, her illness overcame her, and she passed away, content in the belief that God would carry her into a safe and loving eternity.
This patient had a community of support in her family, in her god, and in friends. Hospital staff supported her, as well. Because of this social support, she had the resilience to face reality, to accept what was true, to experience grief and work through it, and to find peace and optimism even in her dying. Had she had the same circle of people around her, but had not had her spirituality, I don’t think her death would have been so easy. The man I described above had only his mother for support, and though he identified as being Catholic, he didn’t experience the sense of connection or oneness a person gets from a loving god.
A True Resilience
To be resilient, we need skills such as problem solving and emotion regulation. Mostly, though, we need community, relationships, and love. We also need some kind of spiritual nourishment, a faith in something greater than ourselves. Without the capacity to wonder, to question, to hold sacred whatever is in front of us, and to love ourselves and the world with a fierce and gentle caring, we depend more on a rigid determinism than on resilience.
Nonetheless, because the second patient could reach out for support and comfort, she could be resilient in life and in death.
Which I think tells us where that sense of spirituality comes from. Yes, awesome and amazing spiritual experiences can come to anyone in sudden bursts. I have experienced that, and I’ve heard many such stories. What I see, however, is that those sudden awakenings do not last. To have a resilient spirituality, we need community, relationship, love.
Which brings us back to resilience itself, for to be resilient, we need that same community, those same relationships, and that same love.
Faith in Something Greater
Without faith in something larger than ourselves, a god or life force, most people can’t bounce back. They can’t survive the enormity of grief or suffering that buffet them day after day. It’s easy, when we have fine homes and cars and plenty of money, to think that resilience means doing yoga to relieve our stress and practicing self compassion. But when you’re hungry and lonely and have a chronic limp, resilience is a little more basic than that. To get by when life is cold and empty, we must believe things can get better, we must find a bit of comfort in a story or a friend, and we must have faith in a god or a dream or a spirituality grounded in love.
Eventually, we will all die, and we can learn from those who have taken that passage before us. In the face of mortality, resilience is the hope that those who survive us will be okay even when we’re gone. Resilience is the willingness to let go of dreams and projects, to release an old life and embrace a new one. In the face of mortality, resilience is the ability to grieve what we wish we had done, and then honor what we have already given to the world. For many people, resilience in the face of death includes the belief that some part of us will survive without our bodies. Then, in the time we have left, we can learn to love deeply all that we will eventually lose.
Resilience and Love
In the normal course of our lives, we don’t think about the reality that we are all facing mortality. Our lives seem long enough when we’re young and healthy. Yet resilience in the face of long life is really not so different from resilience in the face of certain and imminent death. To be resilient, we must learn to accept our brokenness, to let go of dreams that no longer serve us, to grieve past failures, and to trust our loved ones to survive their own sorrows. To be resilient, we need to honor who we are and the gifts we have to give. We need to hold onto that which is sacred, and then, in the time we have left on this earth, we need to love deeply even though everything we care about will one day disappear.
In faith and fondness,
- For example, http://www.cccf-fcsge.ca/wp-content/uploads/RS_90-e.pdf.
- See https://www.schoolquest.org/blog/entry/dr.-kenneth-r.-ginsburgs-7crucial-cs-of-resilience.
- See http://www.resilience-education.org/.
- Hall, Darlene and Jennifer Pearson, “Critical Abilities Related to the Development of Resilience,” Canadian Child Care Federation, Spring 2017, http://www.reachinginreachingout.com/documents/CCCF-Spring07-English.pdf, accessed November 10, 2017.
- Brene’s book is reviewed on the website “Spirituality and Practice,” http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/25656/the-gifts-of-imperfection, accessed November 10, 2017.
- See Suzanne, “Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg’s ‘7 Crucial C’s of Resilience,” SchoolQuest, May 14, 2013, https://www.schoolquest.org/blog/entry/dr.-kenneth-r.-ginsburgs-7crucial-cs-of-resilience, accessed November 10, 2017.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway, Parenting a Child Who Has Experienced Abuse or Neglect, Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, 2013, https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/parenting_CAN.pdf, accessed November 10. 2017, 7.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens