Over my long career as an occupational therapist I had the good fortune to meet many extraordinary people who were living with difficult illnesses, disabilities, or addictions. The resilient among them adapted extremely well and lived creative and fulfilling lives. Others just suffered without any sort of reprieve. I’ve always been curious about the differences between those who were thriving and those who were just surviving.
Let me start by saying that the observations I will be sharing are over-simplifications and every person and situation is unique. Also, I’m not going to discuss the social determinants of health like wealth, stability, social support or education. These factors make a huge difference and no matter how amazing you are as a person, if you are poor or isolated you will have a harder time of it. Also, research has demonstrated that people who suffer abuse or trauma in their early years will always carry that with them. Even those who feel they’ve overcome childhood pain are more susceptible to illness than their peers who had happy, stable childhoods.
So what determined who was resilient?
- The resilient people were able to focus on the present. They didn’t spend a lot of time obsessing about the past and how things went wrong, or mourning the future that they expected to have. Instead, they spent their energy on what they could still do, not focusing on what they couldn’t.
- The thrivers didn’t take their struggles personally. Yes, they may have had regrets (wish I never started smoking), but they recognized that whatever happened to them was not a punishment or a failure. They let go of trying to know “why” and focused on the “what now?”
- Open-mindedness. The thrivers were willing to try new methods of doing things. They were willing to change their habits if it meant getting the job done. They were clear about their values and priorities, but still willing to listen and negotiate.
- The resilient types were interested in learning, interested in current events, and interested in meeting and getting to know new people. They didn’t become self-obsessed.
- The thrivers stayed focused, even when they ran into dead ends. They did not take no for an answer. For example, I met a fellow who engineered his own in-home elevator when he wasn’t able to afford to buy one. All he needed was the idea. His able-bodied friends helped him build it.
Creative and Radical.
- Problem solving and imagination. The resilient were willing to do things that were creative and a little radical. I remember a woman who cut a hole in her bedroom wall so that she could watch her son play in the yard on days she was too weak to get up. Her priority was to be a mother first and house-proud second. She reasoned that the hole could be repaired, but neglecting the needs of her young son could not be.
- Optimism/Humour. The resilient people were able to find a lighter side to life even in the darkest of moments. They were a joy to be around, which meant that they had a lot more supportive friends and relatives. They also managed to find things to feel grateful about, even if it was only a set of fresh sheets, or a good movie on TV.
- The resilient people made an effort to keep relationships going. They would stay in touch with friends. They would volunteer, contribute, and listen even if they had extremely limited abilities. They were willing to be vulnerable and to experience and share the whole spectrum of emotions.
- Self-compassion. Even if they had lost many of their abilities the resilient types recognized that they still had value and that they could still contribute, even if it wasn’t in the way they were used to doing it. They did not blame themselves or others for their struggles (even when they legitimately could have).
- The really exceptional people had made their peace with death. They were still afraid, but also well aware that nobody gets out of here alive. Once they had accepted that they couldn’t control the final act, but could control their response to it, they seemed to be much lighter.
So what does this have to do with yoga?
The resilient people I came to know had all overcome what are known in yoga philosophy as the klesas or “obstacles.” These are:
- Not seeing things as they really are
- Clinging to pleasure, avoiding pain
- Getting caught up in egotism and stories about I, me, and mine without being able to see that the sense of self is constantly in flux
- And finally, the fear of death, or rather fear of the end of the story of me.
Resilient people are ordinary people who have come a long way towards mastering these obstacles, and because of it they can cope with pain without becoming a slave to it. I was privileged to be able to bear witness to and admire the qualities that made them who they were. I hope you find these ten points useful, and would love to hear your comments and ideas about what I’ve missed.
Here’s to cultivating resilience and connection,
Yours, as always,