I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience. Last month we brought Sweet Readers back to our long term partner, The New Jewish Home, in Manhattan. It was a pleasure to be able to see so many residents and their dedicated staff again. One particular resident stood out for me, her name is Carol. Carol looked gaunt and withdrawn when she first appeared on the Zoom screen. Living in any nursing home this past year has been by necessity, extremely stressful and isolating. As the 45 minutes unfolded, however, I marveled at Carol’s resilience, her insistent wide smile and brightening eyes. She was lighting up the room and instilling that light in the weary 5th grade charter school Sweet Readers. I asked Carol how she was managing and where that smile was coming from and her immediate reply was “from all of you!”.
Ten years ago, our trusted advisor, Dr. Gregory Petsko shared in our first documentary, “Anyone who knows anything about medicine understands that one of the most potent healing weapons we have is the human touch. But that isn’t necessarily restricted to physical contact. It’s also the meeting of one mind with another and the connection of an emotion between two people.”
Carol is an extrovert, so I couldn’t help but wonder, would a person who is more introverted fare as well as Carol under extraordinary circumstances?
According to Psychology Today, “Resilience is the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events, or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal, and continue moving toward their goals.”
There is a fair argument that resilience, like optimism, is an innate quality, you either see the glass empty or it’s half full. But science is proving that resilience can be developed (Southwick & Charney, 2012) and I’ve witnessed first hand, both optimistic and pessimistic people from diverse backgrounds and circumstances, especially over this past year, rise up in the face of adversity, in myriad creative ways, and thrive.
Back in 2016, Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Rudy Tanzi shared with Young Leader Emma the power of a smile and love to inspire new brain synapsis and potentially change the course of someone’s brain health. According to Dr. Nancy Isenberg, Medical Director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle WA, in an interview last week with Young Leader Erica, 40% of dementia cases are preventable over a lifespan. Dr. Isenberg explained how compassion and community are key factors. In 2017, Dr. Howard Fillit, neuroscientist and director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, also shared with our Sweet Readers and Young Leaders the importance of our lifestyle choices: healthy eating, sleep, social engagement and learning new things, exercise and managing stress.
I’m with the Beatles perspective that we get by with a little help from our friends. And I’d like to add communities. In Carol’s case, it wasn’t just those delightful Sweet Readers – though they really did make a difference in her overall wellbeing as she did in theirs, it was also the staff of the home, it was the consistent care from Katie, Andrea, Maria and their fearless and inspiring leader, Rabbi Jonathan. They created an environment of support which fueled many resident’s ability to survive and thrive amidst tremendous hardship.
Like yoga and self care, athletics and musical, artistic, poetic and most other types of achievement, in order to become resilient, practice is also a critical component regardless of your genetics or innate qualities. Practice helps hone your skills.
Connection, love, community, lifestyle choices, practice….for me, resilience is a combination of inner and outward strength and flexibility. It’s not any one factor, including a person’s level of optimism, which, by the way, with good supports, can also grow.
Imagine standing on the mid block of the west side of fifth avenue between 41st and 42nd Street. Before you is the majestic Beaux Art Carrera & Hastings building known as the New York Public Library, filled with more information than you can absorb in a lifetime. What if there was something inside you needed to survive? What if you were wheelchair bound and it was the middle of a blizzard and you were all alone? Would you feel daunted and dismayed?
Before you are two powerful lions, aptly named Patience and Fortitude and between them, too many steps to ascend alone. What do you do? You brace yourself, get still in your own power and the belief that you can get up those stairs, enter the great halls and receive the knowledge you seek. You have a mission and the faith that you can do it. What else do you need? You need a little help. So you reach out to friends and strangers and low and behold, they emerge, guided by your own inner voice and energy. They support you in your journey. You give a wink to Patience and Fortitude, accepting their inspiration and slowly, you ascend those stairs, buoyed by your own faith and the friendship that surrounds you. Each step is a struggle, it’s slippery and you are heavy, but you have patience, fortitude and friendship and amidst the struggle, a smile fills your face and your heart. You reach the top of the stairs and the doors open to you, you find the information you seek – the spark for a new method of walking for ambulatory people, perhaps? – and you get to work, fueled by the strength within and surrounding you. You dive into the learning and by the time you re-emerge, the blizzard has ended, the doors open once again and the world is your oyster. You have survived and even thrived. You are renewed, strengthened and in community. You are committed to nurturing and balancing the duel forces in your life – self care and community and ready to make things happen.
So what about the person who is daunted and afraid? While faith really does matter, if we all come together as community and build compassion for each other, then we can lift each other up and give each other what we need in those trying times and yes, even a pessimist can become resilient. I’ve seen it happen too many times to believe anything different.
Here are five major components to resilience:
Get still and listen to your own voice. Recognize that you can get through this. Find your purpose, invest in your friendships and they will fuel your resilience; then be patient and have fortitude and you will see yourself evolve and thrive, within yourself and also as part of a community. And if you are feeling strong in your own resilience, then you are blessed to be able to share that strength with others. We are all in this together and if we come together, through both the easy and challenging times and see each other more fully, starting with ourselves, then we will both individually and collectively thrive.