I’ve been contemplating resilience in adversity a lot lately. We’ve been forced into a position where we can either fold to the insurmountable obstacles in our path or reach deep down inside and find the reserves to climb out of the hole. This pandemic has pushed us all into a place of discomfort and uncertainty, and the question we must ask is how are we going to respond? Because as we are continually reminded, we don’t get to choose our circumstances, but we do get to choose where we go from here.
When I was younger, I always wished I was like the strong, resilient people I saw who were able to rise out of the ashes of adversity and thrive. But I wasn’t—or at least I didn’t know that I was. For many years, I had a deep-seated belief that I didn’t have what it took to be successful. I wasn’t smart enough, good looking enough, extroverted enough…I was living in fear that I was going to be smothered by my life circumstances.
It was because of this belief in my own unworthiness that I started meditating, yoga became a huge part of my life, and I was drawn to self-compassion practices. Little by little, I started trying new things; some worked, and some didn’t.
I learned early on that the practices didn’t keep the tragedies at bay or keep me out of the hole of self-blame and despair—but they did help me get out. And slowly, with each successive failure, I was able to drag my bruised body back up again, and I was able to get up a little bit quicker each time. Through this arduous process, it dawned on me that getting back up is a skill that can be learned; that, dare I say it, success is a skill that can be learned. Just as I had learned hopelessness as a child, I could learn optimism and hope as an adult.
I’ve always been intrigued by the hero’s journey. The heroes I most respected didn’t start out on top. Some of them even had a poor self-concept just like me. And it was because of this that we label them heroes: A silver spoon doesn’t build character; adversity and failure build character.
One of my heroes was Helen Keller, the deaf and blind girl who overcame her disabilities to become a prolific author and activist. Two of my favorite Helen Keller quotes are, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,” and “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
Realistic Optimism Comes from Realistic Self-Confidence
In my study of resilience, both from personal experience and from observing others, resilient people exhibit many qualities including realistic optimism, courage in the face of fear, and integrity of character. I’d like to highlight one: Realistic Optimism. It is realistic because it is acquired from the experience of falling down and getting back up again—a lot!
A better name for it might be Realistic Self-Confidence. It’s the confidence we gain when we realize that we are survivors—that whatever stumbling blocks life puts in our way, we can muster our resources and climb up and over. We can believe in a good outcome not because we were born under a lucky star, but because we have prevailed in one difficult circumstance after another. This self-confidence comes from the steadfast belief that mistakes are not failures, but opportunities to learn and grow.
I don’t want to make light of the pain or the moments of hopelessness. It’s so easy to read the words above and think that some people just have what it takes and others don’t; that just because we have been brought to our knees with despair, we are not one of those people. But I would like to suggest that if you are reading this, you are one of those people. And there are many strategies that you can employ to strengthen these qualities until you believe in your own resilience.
So the work is really quite simple. We just have to be reminded of our competence, sit with it, take it in, and savor it. And as we remind ourselves that we can work with our breath, bodies, and minds to deepen and enhance the patterns, we begin to show up even stronger as the amazing, resilient people that we are.