Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children. But what about the grown-ups?
While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.
I’ve long been interested in, and I most admire, people who are resilient — partly because if you’re not, life can end up morass of poor-me-why-me? misery.
Having said that, if you’re struggling with chronic illness and/or persistent poverty, let alone both, it’s damn hard to get out of bed in the morning with optimism.
But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.
And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.
I have friends and family who’ve survived sexual abuse and assault, negligence, brutal and costly divorces, serious illnesses…It’s not just a matter of surviving, (which can be difficult and isolating enough!) but coming out the other side with some hope or optimism intact.
You have to somehow believe it’s going to get better, even with much current evidence to the contrary.
I’ve written here a few times about some of the challenges I’ve faced, even as a relatively privileged white woman: mental illness and alcoholism in my family of origin, multiple family estrangements, job losses and protracted job searches, three recessions, multiple surgeries, divorce, criminal victimization.
But…it could always be worse.
I was struck, limping for a month through multiple European cities wearing a large and very visible brace on my right leg after re-injuring it on a bike ride in Berlin, how many people sympathized: “Oh, poor you!” or “You’re so brave!”
My choices? Stay and continue on, and limp, or leave in the middle of a cherished and otherwise wonderful vacation; popping painkillers and wearing my brace were not a big deal, and probably looked worse to others than it felt to me.
But bravery to me is a much deeper, and stronger quality.
You can only know really know how much you can handle once it’s thrown into your lap — often without warning.
If you have health, friends and some savings, tough times are more bearable than if you’re ill, broke and lonely, when it can feel like the whole world is aligned against you.
I decided to marry my husband after he responded with grace, speed, decisiveness and generosity to a crisis within my family. His resilient and optimistic character revealed itself in ways that no movie date or romantic holiday could ever have shown me.
His resilience was one of — and still is — his most attractive qualities.
I value resilience highly, wary of people who spend their lives throwing pity parties, especially the otherwise privileged who are shocked! when difficulty strikes.
We have an example of resilience in our home, a weary little geranium plant who I’m always sure is about to kick the bucket at any minute. Instead it keeps on blossoming and blooming, even on its two scrawny stems.
It’s a shriek of outrage/grievance/shock that happens when:
Someone says the wrong thing.
Someone touches you in a way that feels aggressive.
Someone disagrees with you.
Among some younger and apparently ferociously ambitious women, I’m seeing a kind of mass fragility I — and my peers — find astonishing:
Every day, someone shrieks in fury that someone has been racist or sexist or mean to them — which they might well have, but not actually have intended as a personal attack.
Every day, someone says “You’re shaming me!” when all you’ve done is politely, if firmly, disagree with them or share an alternate view, which is now, for some, unforgivable.
Every day, though, I also hear pleas for advice, insights, mentoring.
Every day, the demand to march into HR and get them to fix it, right now.
Every day, the need to school others in how to speak and behave, including those who have the ability to hire — and fire — them.
Every day, a chorus of virtue signalling; dare to challenge or contradict the group, and you’ll be banned, shunned, blocked and bullied — for your lack of sensitivity.
This, often arising from women who have already acquired the relative privilege of a college education and/or paid employment, has rendered me and other women at the top of our professional game, women who have spent years teaching and mentoring, both mystified and repelled.
Because women who have already spent decades in the working world didn’t harbor, or share in fury, the naive fantasy that life would be easy or that it even should be.
The world is full of very sharp edges!
Anyone you meet can challenge or even threaten you, economically, politically, emotionally or physically.
Yes, life is often much more difficult when you’re a person of color, transgender or LGQTBA and the daily fight for social justice is still a necessary one.
I’m speaking of something different, something that feels both more privileged and more unlikely because of that innate power.
Many older women are second or third-wave feminists, every bit as filled with righteous indignation as anyone today ranting and raving about how terrible everything is.
Yet we’re now being lectured to by finger-wagging neophytes on how to speak and behave.
We already know that moving ahead through a male-dominated world could be hard and it still is.
We already know that situations one expects to be civil can get weird, even frightening, and they still do.
We already know, no matter our skills, credentials or experience, we’ll probably have to listen to some absolutely appalling crap and we still do.
These depressingly shared experiences could create powerful inter-generational links, but that’s not what I and my peers are seeing; instead it becomes a dialogue of the deaf and one that older women like myself eventually just walk away from.
No one deserves to be mistreated, overlooked, underpaid and ignored.
We get it!
But older professionals never enjoyed the luxury of a “safe space”, nor would it even have occurred to us — while weathering three American recessions in 20 years — to expect or demand one.
My husband, of Hispanic origin, has heard shit, socially and professionally, I can barely believe. Yet we’re both still working and achieving our goals. If we’d stood up, (as we very much wished to each time someone was rude to us), and shouted “How dare you?!” — we’d possibly have lost a well-paid, hard-won job and probably damaged our careers.
The only safe space I know of is a locked room to which only you have the key.
Talk to people living in Syria or Myanmar or Mexico — where heads literally roll in the streets — about what a “safe space” looks like to them.
There’s a phrase from the Bible, (even though I’m no ardent Christian), that I find powerful and moving: “Put on the armor of light.”
“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”
…And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.
“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky M. Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.
I spent the past year teaching at a private college that charges $60,000 a year. It was an interesting experience to see how fragile and coddled some of these students were.
My husband and I are career journalists; his website is here; mine is here.
Maybe it’s the careers we chose — if you not debrouillard(e) — resourceful and resilient — you’ll hate the job and quickly leave the industry.
It’s likely the generation we grew up in.
Maybe it’s having survived three recessions in the past 20 years, times that forced many of us to shelve our dreams and say farewell to some others forever as our incomes dropped and good jobs disappeared.
I do know one thing.
If you are unable to tolerate discomfort, your life beyond college — no matter where you live, what you earn, what career you path you choose — you are going to be miserable.
So are your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives/partners.
Life has sharp edges!
When someone tells you that your work, or skills — social and/or professional — are weak or sub-standard or do not measure up, these are some of your choices:
— Disagree and ignore them
— Disagree but listen to their input for whatever lessons you can learn from it
— Acknowledge that their point of view is fair and listen to it carefully
— Never try that path of endeavor again
— Complain to a higher authority and push as hard as possible until they take your side
I have several friends who teach college ready to tear out their hair at the behaviors they see from students who refuse to take “no” for an answer when that “no” bumps up against their cherished self-image.
When life feels difficult and unfair and uncomfortable, here are some of your choices:
— Yell at someone
— Run away
— Deal with it
— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings
— Talk to someone wiser and calmer, whether a friend, relative and/or therapist for their insights
–– Change as much of the situation as possible
— Examine how and why your reaction to this challenge is making things even worse; as the Buddhist saying goes “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”
As readers of this blog know, I do not have children and never wanted to have children.
I do nurture and mentor about a dozen younger writers and photographers, one of whom just arrived in Australia for a two-month assignment there. Jose and I are happy to do it.
But they listen! They also have developed the requisite ego strength, even in their early 20s, to hear tough-if-loving feedback and use some of it without a shrug, hand-flap or quick dismissal of anything that challenges them.
I was still an undergraduate when I began selling my writing to national publications. At one of them, an editor was so harsh I’d end up in tears after a phone session with her.
But I learned a lot from her: how to write better, how to listen to criticism (even painful!), how to maintain a calm and professional demeanor. That growing (up) wasn’t going to be all puppies and rainbows.
Decades later, she’s still reading and admiring my work. That’s hard-won and well-valued in my world.
I wish every new graduate the best of luck as they move into the larger world of commuting, low-level drudgery, long hours, too-little money for too-much work.
More than anything, though, I wish them the resilience they most need — not just a shiny new degree or a stellar GPA — to thrive in the decades ahead.
Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.
And, really, what’s “safe”?
Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.
To never show a moment’s vulnerability.
To do it all, all alone.
I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.
That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.
That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.
That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.
Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.
He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.
Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”
It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.
Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.
You become a reluctant witness.
They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.
It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.
Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.
It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.
It is real.
You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.
No whining. No complaining.
We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.
But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.
And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.
I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.
As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.
We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.
We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)
Surely you jest.
Not so much.
And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.
We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.
(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)
Jose’s father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parish numbered about 30 — with a church large enough to hold 200. He faced many empty pews, yet kept on going.
His mother was a kindergarten teacher.
She was, he says, the epitome of faith.
Money was often tight and Jose, the sensitive, often worried baby of the family, sometimes wondered if everything would be OK.
“Have faith,” his mother told him.
We tend to talk about faith in narrow religious terms, as faith in a deity or a set of guidelines.
I’m interested, here, in the faith we place in ourselves, in one another and in the world around us.
Without it, without even a shred of it, we’re paralyzed. Too scared to move.
I started selling my creative work to strangers when I was 12. I sat on a Toronto street corner and sold bead necklaces. At 15, I sold my home-made stationery and at 18, my photos — and was gratefully stunned when one of the city’s top fashion photographers bought one.
Maybe that flickering flame of faith in myself, in my nascent skills, in my ability to connect with others who found value in my work danced a little higher then.
Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.
Without faith in our parents — to guide, teach, protect us — we feel un-moored and unsafe.
Without faith in our intelligence and stamina, we can’t accept that learning can be exhausting and difficult.
The past few weeks, for a variety of reasons, have demanded I stolidly move forward, in spite of sometimes paralyzing doubt in a few outcomes. Without the faith I’ll survive them, emotionally and physically, I’d consider staying in bed in the fetal position.
Instead, I went out this weekend to play softball with my co-ed pickup team, a posse of people, some 50 years apart in age, that I’ve known, loved and shared post-game, beneath-the-trees lunches with for a decade.
I stepped up to the plate, picked up the bat, wondered, in my first game of the season what would happen next — and hit a single.
I’ve been asked many times why, when faced with challenge, I don’t just give up.
Fortunately, I’ve never faced sexual assault, chronic or terminal illness, war, famine or poverty. Some of the people who read Broadside have faced these very real traumas, so I don’t begin to suggest my First World problems are terribly compelling, but resilience and tenacity do interest me.
Who cracks and crumples, hysterical, and who soldiers on?
While at university studying Spanish and starting my journalism career, I volunteered as an interpreter for Chileans who had suffered, and/or witnessed, the rape, torture or death of their loved ones, neighbors and fellow citizens, who had fled to Canada and who were claiming refugee status. In that role, I listened carefully to stories so soul-searing I’ve never forgotten them, even when I wanted to. I went to the dentist with one man to see if the X-rays could prove, (which they did not) that his jaw had, in fact, been smashed by a rifle butt. Another told me, in the detail he had to to prove his claim, about watching his wife and daughters raped in front of him.
My personal challenges have included:
— being the only child of a divorced bi-polar alcoholic mother who suffered multiple breakdowns and hospitalizations, some overseas
— her multiple cancer surgeries
— the loss of both grandmothers when I was 18
— putting myself through college, living alone for three years of it
— being attacked by an intruder in my apartment, at 19
— selling my work to national publications, starting at 19
— three recessions since moving to New York in 1989
— moving to, and adapting to, life in Mexico, France and the U.S.
— getting divorced
— becoming the victim of a con artist
— four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including full left hip replacement in 2012; 18 months’ of pain and exhaustion before the operation
When single, I didn’t give up for practical reasons — who would have bought the groceries or made the meals? The laundry and dog-walking? Turning to my family for help was rarely an option, for a variety of reasons.
If you fall to bits, who pays the bills?
I’ve always had health insurance — even paying $500/month for it when I lived alone for six years — and with it, access to medical and mental health help when necessary. I know that’s been a huge advantage for me, as has the freedom from the pressing financial and emotional responsibilities of children or grandkids.
Sent to boarding school and summer camp from the age of eight, I learned young to take care of myself, not to ask for help, not to rely on others for aid or comfort. The hardest part has been learning to ask others for help — and being pleasantly surprised and grateful at how willingly some offer it.
At my absolutely lowest points, I still had my health, some savings, a safe, clean home I could afford. Maybe having lived in Mexico at 14, or having traveled to a number of developing countries, helped me keep a sense of perspective — I was still deeply blessed with what I had, no matter how tough things looked at the time.
And some people still dearly loved me; their faith in me, and their generosity and kindness, helped me keep it together. One woman, after the con man scared the shit out of me and I seriously considered moving back to Toronto, gave me refuge in her home for three weeks there.
The only time I really gave up, and my body made clear I had no choice in the matter, was three days on an IV in March 2007 , hospitalized with pneumonia. I had never just collapsed, (even when I really wanted to), and allowed others to take very good care of me while I rested and recovered.
Finally, I do have a full time job and spent the bulk of my time working on that, so all of this other stuff was the extracurricular activity that filled in the cracks around the 60+ hours a week of VC work I was doing during this time.
I had a lot of time to reflect on this last week after I came out of my Vicodin-induced haze. At 47, I realize, more than ever, my mortality. I believe my kidney stone and depression were linked to the way I treated myself physically over the 90 days after my bike accident. While the kidney stone might not have been directly linked to the accident, the culmination of it, the surgery, and my depression was a clear signal to me that I overdid it this time around.
I don’t care how fast you can text. How high can you jump? How fast can you run? How much can you carry?
Today’s men, thanks to sedentary lives and a machine available to perform or ease almost every form of physical work, have become slow-moving weaklings. A new book by Australian writer Peter McAllister explains — using anthropology and history — just how wimpy modern man has become.
I’ve only dated one guy who worked an intensely physical job, as a a ship’s engineer. Just getting to the hot and dangerous engine room meant climbing up and down a steep metal ladder several times a day. He was lean, muscled and wiry, a totally different creature from any man I’ve met before or since.
There is something comforting, however retro, to know your man has a few muscles in addition to his Phd or MBA. If I can do a fireman’s carry and drag his atrophied, overeducated bum out of a burning building, I want to feel secure he can do the same for me.