Resilience

Brussels, Belgium

The concept of resilience has come up quite a lot lately in various realms – which makes sense with the ongoing changes we’re all having to deal with as a result of the pandemic. Resilience has a lot to do with how we react to challenges… and we don’t seem to have a shortage of challenges lately! It really is no wonder we’re seeing such in increase in anxiety and other mental health issues. Some challenges we can count on and therefore prepare for – exams, interviews, big presentations, and the like. Some challenges we know are possible, but hope we won’t have to deal with – things like losses, failures, accidents. Then there’s the challenges we didn’t see coming and didn’t necessarily directly prepare for… pandemics, sudden losses, tragedies.

Lately it seems we’ve been hit by all three of those categories: the stresses of expected everyday life, the stresses of possibilities that unfortunately came to be, and the stress of tragedies, sudden losses, and the unknown.

As a result, the skills associated with resilience are all the more important for students, families, teachers, and just about everyone, really. Depending on the research you read, we’re either getting better at being resilient, or we’re seriously lacking and in deep trouble… and I’m sure it’s an oversimplification to make sweeping judgements covering people in general, but I think with everything going on, it’s certainly worth looking into how we can improve our ability to bounce back from difficulties, persevere through them, and even learn from them and incorporate them in healthy ways into our life story.

Technology has certainly had an impact on our resilience. In some ways, a very positive impact: our ability to communicate across vast distances, in spite of isolation, and in real time is nothing short of miraculous. Imagine the set back we’d experience if we had to live through the same pandemic restrictions just 20 years ago with dial-up internet and no hope of video… or 50 years ago when long-distance phone calls could be unfathomably expensive. Technology has been a life-saver. But it’s worth bearing mind that it’s also cost us in some surprising ways when it comes to resilience.

For one thing, the ubiquitous nature of screens in our lives means that we’re actually stunting some of our capacity for resilience – and this is especially true for younger generations which have grown up with screens and personal devices from a young age.

Screens provide an incredibly convenient and often near-instant reprieve from negative feelings caused by things like boredom, loneliness, and awkwardness. They don’t necessarily end our struggles with those things, but they numb the pain. If I have to wait in line for anything, I do so with my phone so I’m not bored for even a few minutes! Not talking to anyone at a party? No need to look awkward, just pull out your phone and the assumption is you must be “talking” to someone just not in person. Feeling lonely? Just text, tweet, post, and scroll your way through a near infinite amount of people within your virtual grasp!

The reality is that dealing with boredom, loneliness, and awkwardness builds resilience. We learn to be self-entertaining, we hone social skills, and we come to appreciate the balance of being comfortable with our thoughts AND being able to appreciate the company of others. But devices protect us from the aches and pains that forge that sort of growth. Overcoming those discomforts lays an important foundation for our capacity to grow as we learn to take on bigger and more significant difficulties. Alleviating minor discomforts like boredom stunts out ability to grow through increasing challenges.

Now just as there are a variety of challenges to overcome, there are also different types of resilience we develop through those challenges. It’s a little too simplistic to simply label someone has having or lacking resilience… in reality we have a mixture of levels of resilience in different areas. Knowing this can help us hone in on where we need to grow specifically.

Perhaps you’re really good at cognitive resilience – how you think through situations and interpret circumstances, but lacking in relational resilience – your sense of social connectedness and access to a support network. Maybe you have great emotional resilience – you can tolerate negative feelings and balance them with confidence and hopefulness, but you struggle with motivational resilience – having a clear sense of purpose to focus you.

The truth is that like so many other things in life, there’s no shortcuts to resilience in all of its forms. Our ability to bounce back, keep going, and grow from the struggles we face is an important facet of our emotional, social, intellectual, and even physical health… and it takes work. Building physical strength requires us to strain our muscles – gradually – and with each manageable increase in resistance we tear muscle fibers, which heal over providing more strength. Resilience works the same way: we need to gradually be exposed to difficulties so that we can, over time, cope with more intensity – and bounce back from it.

I believe we’re now faced with some pretty hefty weights to lift as far as challenges in life, and many of us are feeling the strain of resilience-muscles not quite ready for the load. We know that too much adversity has negative effects on our quality of life, but the sometimes overlooked fact is that too little adversity can be just as damaging.

So, what areas of resilience do you need to work on? What small increments can you add to build them up? Perhaps starting with something as simple as choosing NOT to use your phone when you’re bored for a day or two a week, or initiating conversation even if you feel awkward with friends you haven’t connected with in a while. Bear in mind, manageable discomfort builds up strength, just like weights at the gym… so if it’s uncomfortable (but not overwhelming), then you’re probably on your way. We have phenomenal capacity for resilience, but also phenomenal access to comfort. Comfort’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not a constant or a guarantee… so we’ve got to work a bit harder at being intentional in our growth so we can get through the difficulties AND enjoy our comforts.