Resilience is earned


How did our ancestors do it?


By Caitlin Kelly


On social media, I’m seeing a lot of people freaking out, marinating in terror and anxiety, desperate for this pandemic to just be over.

There’s no way to remain unmoved by this crisis.

There’s no way to ignore the tremendous grief and shock it has imposed, certainly for anyone who’s lost a friend, colleague, neighbor or loved one — and in New York, where we live, that’s more than 10,000 people, with 600-700+ people dying every day.

But, every morning, New York governor Mario Cuomo addresses us, and one of his repeated refrains is this:

Emotion is a luxury.

If you spend every day and night for weeks, even months, terrified, your body is going to be ravaged internally by adrenaline and cortisol — the chemical reactions urging us unto “fight or flight” — when we can do neither.

That alone is wearying and exhausting!

And perseverating really is bad for your health, as this New York Times health writer explains:


There are important health reasons to tamp down excessive anxiety that can accompany this viral threat. We have a built-in physiological response to imminent danger called fight-or-flight. Hearts beat faster, blood pressure rises and breathing rate increases to help us escape the man-eating lion.

Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.


Some of you have already weathered serious storms: cancer, job loss, unemployment, sexual assault, abusive workplaces and/or families.


The only silver living to any of this is resilience.


When you get a cancer diagnosis, people rush to cheer: “You’ve a trouper! You’ve got this!” and mostly, unhelpfully: “You’re so brave.”

But there’s only two choices — get on with it, or give up.

We live in a county north of New York City with a wide array of income levels, a few towns more working-class and some studded with millionaires, even billionaires, like Martha Stewart or the Clintons.

The town just south of us is an affluent one, where some people see “hardship” as their child not winning elite college admission.

So there are endless books and articles published to help the pampered and protected somehow learn to artificially acquire grit and resilience, when those are qualities one tends to discover — often unwilllingly, through circumstance — only through lived experience.

You walk through fire, emerging singed.




Here’s former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writing in The New York Times:

My life in the decades since, both in and out of government, has been enriched by the survivors of other extraordinary times. During my time as secretary of state, I met a 6-year-old boy in Uganda whose mother had been killed in a massacre. He had pulled himself out from under her body and walked several miles, carrying his little sister on his back, to a camp run by a religious organization. In Sierra Leone, I held a 3-year-old girl who had lost her arm to a bullet; she was later adopted and lived on the same street I do in Washington.

In Bosnia, I grasped hands with women whose husbands and sons had been murdered and dumped in a mass grave near the village of Srebrenica. In Thailand, I met teenage girls who had been rescued from sex traffickers; they braided one another’s hair while telling me of their determination to live fearlessly despite scarred minds. At Georgetown University, back in Washington, I taught alongside a professor, Jan Karski, who had escaped from wartime Poland carrying to Britain and America some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the transport of Jews to killing centers ordered by Hitler.

During my tenure in the State Department, I worked closely with Vaclav Havel, leader of my native Czech Republic, and with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela; both had spent years as political prisoners. I also visited American soldiers, aviators, diplomats, aid workers and Peace Corps volunteers deployed to regions where each day brought intense suffering and renewed conflict.

As president, Bill Clinton talked often about “the quiet miracle of a normal life.” But what we customarily think is “normal” is neither as common as supposed, nor as inevitable. A generally contented society is a rarity that humans must do our best to establish and sustain.



15 thoughts on “Resilience is earned

  1. Yes to all of this.

    So many people can’t simply shelter in place to wait out this pandemic, and many have experienced unimaginable horrors. And yet, the human spirit is resilient. I donated to a few refugee charities this week — including a small organisation set up to support refugees in Syria and families in London — and will give more when I can. Trying to make a difference where I can, although it’s just a drop in the ocean.

  2. Domestic violence calls are up a shocking 79% in our county. Sadly, many with pre-existing conditions (alcoholism, drugs, abusive personalities) are (not surprisingly) responding very poorly to this stress.

      1. I don’t envy those who had to make big decisions under terrible pressure and blistering criticism no matter what they decided. We are getting more data every day so hopefully we can carefully move past this duck and cover phase.

  3. Hi there, Just came back to your blog after almost 10 years of being away. Nice to see you are still here. The piece by Albright is heart wrenching. No matter how “bad” many of us have it, we are still so damn blessed. Also our instinct is to diminish our own suffering when we read tales of utter horror like the 6 year old boy. I cried when I read that. It made me think of my own sister and the miles I would carry her. Where is that man now? What story does he have to tell?

    1. Wow….welcome back!!! Delighted to have you again and hope to keep you for a bit…

      It’s life-changing to get out of one’s bubble (if your life has been fairly OK financially) and see what others face and endure and somehow keep GOING with grace.

      I am fortunate to have lived in Mexico and visited several developing nations. You just can’t see the world the same way after you see what others face every day…

  4. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, this is one of the most profound and moving things you’ve written in this blog, in my opinion. The Albright piece shows a slice of how unusual what many Americans think “Normal” really is – much, if not most, of the world’s population doesn’t experience life that way. Your comment about privileged people thinking they can learn resilience from a safe distance, without actually feeling pain or privation – and your example of some people thinking heartbreak is when their kid fails to get into their first choice of school – is very insightful.

    1. Thanks!

      It always shocks me to see what some people consider “difficult” or “deprivation”…

      My week in Nicaragua (no time at all, really) was profound. When we flew back from Managua through Atlanta, the sandwich-and-a-Coke cost maybe $16…almost a day’s wages (at average Nicaraguan income.)

  5. There’s no question that this pandemic will test resilience. The problem, as I see it, is that so many of the ‘first world’ nations have had two generations of neo-liberalism with its ideological focus not on resilience, but on a reduction of social and ethical human moral intangibles to dollar terms, and the ideal of natural entitlement to material goods and affluence. It hasn’t equipped societies well for downturns, still less to be empathetic towards others, which is so desperately needed now. People across much of the globe will have to learn a different way of thinking if we are to get through this. I hope it can be achieved without any major disruptions for us all, at personal level or otherwise.

    1. Thank you…so well said!

      I really wonder if there can be a significant re-set — so badly needed. Here in the U.S., of course, there’s huge pressure from 45 and his cronies on every committee to re-open the economy.

      Since he only knows or cares about the wealthy, the “economy” means more profit for them and thousands more of us at risk of illness and death.

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