My recent experience with recovery from surgery (this summer I underwent my fifth orthopedic surgery in five years) has gotten me to think about the amazing tendency of the body and mind to overcome adversity and our tendency to restore ourselves to where we were before. “Resilience” is the word for it and the study of resilience has become a new field of psychological research.
Philosopher that I am, I recall that the 17th century thinker, Spinoza, had defined the essence of all things, whether animate or inanimate, as simply the tendency of each thing to persist in its own existence. In other words, unless interfered with by an outside agent or force, which all things are, each entity simply continues to persevere as it is. Objects in motion remain in motion. Objects at rest remain at rest. And living things persist in the perpetuation of life. Another way to say this is that nature is inherently conservative and resists change until change is (inevitably) imposed upon it. After calamity strikes, there is a tendency and innate striving to overcome the challenge and to restore ourselves to where we had been. Sometimes, because of the challenge, we may even come back stronger than before.
When I reflect on this capacity for restoration, it seems like a type of gift that, in my more spiritual moments, evokes a sense of quiet gratitude — thankfulness not to a god that watches over me, but for whatever natural forces there may be that work to return me to normalcy, health and well-being.
When it comes to the capacity for resilience, there remain a lot of unknowns. Some people clearly have more of it than others, but why, remains unclear. Tragedy is such that many children are born into environments almost devoid of love, in which the basic resources that make for a stable well-adjusted life are absent. For some, there is a single lifeline — an uncle, a teacher, a minister or other adult in their lives who believed in them. For most such children, the adversity is so great that they cannot take advantage of this supportive presence. But in a few cases, it is this one individual who makes the difference between a life lived productively and a life lost. Why some children can take advantage of this single benign presence, while most cannot, is itself unknown.
But the capacity for resilience in the face of adverse circumstance is not totally mysterious. To some extent, resilience can be cultivated. Among the factors that can maximize our innate resource to cope and persevere is the refusal to see ourselves as mere victims of circumstances. Identifying as a victim rather than as a person who forthrightly can confront challenges clearly does not help in rallying our internal resources. A second is to not see the challenge, however great, as insurmountable, so that we are fated not to get beyond it. A third approach involves a paradox, and it is that in the midst of stressful circumstances, one can express the ability to externally reach out to help others in need. In life, we often find that the depleted self gains strength not through passively receiving what we feel we do not have, but by actually extending that capacity to others. In short, if we find ourselves bereft of love or compassion, the trick is not to bemoan our fate and passively wait for these gifts to come our way, but actually strive as best we can to extend these very virtues we sense we lack to others. Reaching outwardly strengths us. And so it is in the nurturing of our resilience.
A further marker of resilience is being able to draw from others — from family, friends and community. Here is where the Ethical Society comes in. Not only do we provide a lifesustaining philosophy that we can draw from in our time of need, but we also have a community of supportive others that can bolster our own resilience and augment our natural propensity toward healing. I have long seen our Ethical community as a pretty resilient bunch of people — people with a “pro” feeling about life who have been admirably resourceful in drawing upon their own strengths and those of others to get by.
These are hard times, marked by a stressed economy, job loss, the breakdown of social institutions and doubts about the American future. And, needless to say, we also suffer the pain of personal loss and illness. In such times, we need to find ways to augment our inborn capacity for resilience, which includes, as noted, strengthening our ties to one another. My talk for September 8th is titled “Resilience, Humanism and the Affirmation of Life.” I look forward to seeing you all after what I hope has been a restorative summer. “We need to find ways to augment our inborn capacity for resilience, which include … strengthening our ties to one another.” “Resilience, Humanism and the Affirmation of Life”.
A Word of Thanks
I want to extend my deeply felt gratitude to all those members and friends who expressed their kindness and support to me during my recuperation from surgery in July. I received literally scores of cards and other expressions of well-wishing. The sheer outpouring was, in its volume, a surprise to me. And many of the cards were accompanied by personal notes of good cheer. But beyond mere kindness and concern, I found the graciousness expressed by so many of you to be deeply supportive and sustaining in what, at times, has been rough going. Again, I cannot express my gratitude to you all. Many, many thanks! What a community!! With warmest, heartfelt regards, Joe