The Question of Resilience: Today, I got a voicemail message from a friend who gave me an enormous compliment. It was unexpected, and came at a good time for me. She asked, “I am journalling today about resilience, and I thought of you. How are you resilient? What do you do?” After getting over the flattery involved in the question, I percolated for a while, and had a bit of an epiphany now that she had posed this question of me. Sometimes, I think, people associate resilience with nothing but positive attributes that are strong, sane and healthy. It is often defined as“…the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”. Patience and grace and being “limber, empowered and authentic” (Joanie Connell) are other noble qualities required for it. However, what if the negative traits (that we have been told are negative) that we struggle to control and the difficult behaviour that we attempt to manage over our lifetime, are, in fact, the very things that get us through the difficulties? What if some of our neurotic and psychotic tendencies buried beneath our redeeming qualities are in fact our friends at times of difficulty?
I asked my husband what he thought of when I told him my friend’s question. “Do you think of me as resilient?” I was curious.
“Absolutely,” he replied and then explained. “When something bad happens to you, you don’t withdraw, you mobilize. You drive me crazy, but it seems to work.”
“I suppose it is better than the alternative,” I answered.
Mobilizing in my childhood had sometimes been described as being feisty and obstinate by my parents and teachers. I was not always easily convinced of things. In my later years, working on something to exhaustion until it was solved was considered to be compulsive or controlling. “It will all work out okay,” was a provocative ideal to me, but held little proof for me in the real world. I had learned that for things to turn out really well, I had to be part of the solution. Henry Beecher describes this level of self-regulation in the following way: “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself-and be lenient to everybody else.” In truth, this philosophy of resilience is rife with obsession, narcissism and hyper-vigilant behaviour that can be outright difficult; but there is something to it, in my experience. This type of tenacity flies in the face of the “let it be” ideal that can be so tempting to embrace because it also has merit. My reality has always been that there is a level of risk and courage living a successful life because “[l]ife doesn’t stop for anybody. [We must keep] going or [we’ll] fall behind.” Avina Celeste Life is a little bit crazy too.
“Sisu” is a “uniquely Finnish quality that references a certain level of craziness and recklessness that inspires someone to take on something in the face of incredible odds” (Urban Dictionary). There are so many examples of it around us, and yet, we often give credit to luck or God. As religious as I desire to be, I think that our odds of success are dramatically improved when we look life in the eye and face it head on. Being squeamish and meek when dealt a problem rarely goes well; whereas, holding strongly to the reigns of the bulls that long to buck us off of them as they twist and turn underneath us, takes “grit” (Duckworth, 2017: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance). Don’t get me wrong. I never mix up this idea of embracing crazy as being unethical or lacking in integrity. Integrity is essential to all true survival. No. I talk about those shadow side qualities that give people a bad rap sometimes. For example, my lippy nature in childhood that drove my parents crazy has served me well in adulthood when I have had to stand up for myself and others in unusual situations, granted I have learned to do so with greater discretion. (My husband describes my “sass-factor” as being a bit over the top when I stand up to him.) My manic nature which ignores doctors when they advise that I should not expect to hike again after two feet and two knee surgeries, and then climbing into the middle of one of the Great Pyramids a few months later, could be considered unwise by some. However, I have found that the positive results of believing that I could do it, far outweighed the risks.
Internal and External Locus of Control: When I wrote my dissertation, I came across this idea of being “conative” (motivated). I heard an educational speaker Ernestine Riggs (2007) talk about how some cancer patients survive, and some do not, and much of it is based around their habits of mind and their conative spirit of survival. “Attribution Theory” (Heider, 1958) follows this line of thinking when outlining the differences between people who have a stronger internal locus of control as opposed to an external one: “Internal Attribution is the process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces…External Attribution is the process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some situation or event outside a person’s control rather than to some internal characteristic…” Attribution theory clearly outlines that people who believe in themselves are more successful. When we believe that our circle of influence starts from within and we believe that we have efficacy within our life circumstances, powerful things happen.
Doors open. People welcome us. Problems get solved when we believe in ourselves. This grand notion that “anything is possible” has its limitations, but it is this singular spirit of enterprise that holds open the door for us to change and grow. Welcoming change is the very life force of resilience. On the flip-side, the very things that are best for us (and this may not always be apparent to us at the outset of any key life event that requires a decision) may not be best for everyone else. It can cause problems in our lives (relationships, work and circumstances) when we tackle things the way that we know intrinsically to be necessary.
Making difficult and best choices; and then sticking with them (discipline) until we need to update them with new best choices, is the crux of it all. In essence, being resilient is a commitment to a good life by not just keeping up with it, but staying clearly ahead of it so that it doesn’t knock us over. Staying ahead of things takes a level of logic and foresight that has taken years of trial and error for me. The best mantra that I strive daily to achieve is being responsible for my actions: “I say what I mean and do what I say”. By living like this, I have learned to be accountable to myself at times of incredible vulnerability. In being committed to myself and others in this way, I then trust that I can do it over and over …and over again, regardless of the difficulty.
Breathing Life into Practice: Recently, I was in the hospital that turned into a five-day stint in intensive care. Like so many times in my life, I had been diagnosed with pneumonia and then pleurisy and other related issues that have rushed me to the emergency room. All of a sudden, in this little town of Powell River, I was being treated (as my doctor referred to me) as a bit of a “crime scene”, and much medical testing ensued. However, to my dismay, none of the testing that they did with me involved taking a sputum culture. Even though I knew the doctors were the experts, so was I about my own body. Nobody had paid as much attention to it over 51 years as I had done. In my lifetime, which was a predominantly positive, healthy and active one, but rife with extreme bouts of pneumonia, I had learned that my sputum cultures had often grown some “pretty strange stuff”. These tests helped me to identify bugs and treat them with the right antibiotics. Otherwise, it was guesswork in my opinion, and hard on my body when taking the wrong medication.
I took a deep breath from my oxygen tank, looked the doctor straight in the eye (making he and everyone else in the room uncomfortable) and asked for a sputum culture. I could feel his ego crinkle a bit at my question as it was not part of his testing protocol. “I don’t find much success with sputum cultures,” he replied and continued to explain why this was the case. I repeated my request firmly, and he agreed to requisition this test for me with an air of indulgence.
This one act of self-advocacy started a chain of events that had never been afforded me before. Doctors paid attention to a bacteria that grew in that sputum culture. They connected it to others that had grown in my medical files many years ago (that I rounded up for the doctors involved). I was poked and prodded and asked many questions about my health, so that some of the medical dots started to connect for all of us. It wasn’t until I was asked to do pulmonary function and sweat chloride testing that important information started to surface because we were addressing an old problem with new lenses. The research process was rigorous with the results still pending a couple of more tests (genetic testing), but it appears that I may fall on the cystic fibrosis spectrum (CF).
This term CYSTIC FIBROSIS jumped out at me as absolutely inconceivable. Terrifying! What would become of me? Would I live a shorter and more difficult life than I had expected to live? How could I possibly tell anyone this terrible news? I envisioned disaster.
Living My Truth: So, there it is. The truth. I said it out loud, and now it is real. That is the first step to resilience: trying the truth on for size before it swallows me up. I imagine the worst case scenario and I mobilize. In this case, I pulled out all of my breathing equipment, sterilized it, picked up medication (extensive) from the pharmacy despite hating all of it, and set it up on the dining room table. It was time to take this matter of my breathing very seriously. Fortunately, I have been eating an extremely healthy diet, and have been active despite not really feeling well. I had moved to live by the ocean to help with my breathing and that has been a good choice. Staying positive at a time where the news is difficult is particularly challenging as I feel that I am balancing precariously on the edge of feeling defeated. Instead, I let the tears come. I talk about my fears and worries with my husband, sister and friends. I get it all out…and then, I mobilize.
First, I research. Researching is a powerful thing to do when it is done with vigilance and not hyper-vigilance, and when it is done with more logic than emotion. I find that there needs to be a level-head and a means of triangulating information so that I can decide if there is value in what I am reading. At no point, do I think or act, even to myself, like I am a medical doctor. Instead, I am responsible for gathering my own evidence so that they can make an informed diagnosis. The problem, I find, with the medical profession is not the incapacity of doctors; rather, their lack of time to pull information together and review it. Therefore, I compiled my medical history succinctly for the doctors and discovered that things were starting to make sense to me, and to them because of it. It was therapeutic and they appreciated the effort. By doing so, I looked this possibility of CF squarely in the eye. All the while, I was both horrified and relieved at this potential medical diagnosis. I was always drowning in phlegm my entire life, and now, after 52 years, someone believed me. After reading about CF online, I learned that eighteen adults a year are diagnosed with CF later in life in Canada (http://www.cysticfibrosis.ca/about-cf/living-with-cystic-fibrosis/adults/late-diagnosis/).
Now What? I do not know the end to my story. I just know that I will be okay because it isn’t what happens to me, but my attitude about it and how I handle it that is the important thing. Yes, I will continue to work at the things that I love. Yes, I will continue to hike, and bike and dance and travel. Yes, I will continue to do all of those wonderful things with my new husband who is so very supportive of me on every level. Not doing any of it is not an option. However, I have to make this reality possible for myself, in spite of a diagnosis. I will not let a diagnosis define me. Life must go on, and so it will. Some would call my belief a bit of denial—craziness, and this might be so. However, being just a little bit crazy has kept me relatively healthy up to this point. The doctors marvelled that my lungs are as good as they are at this point in my life given some of my realities. (It must be a result of all of that hiking that I do that I was told I would not be able to do again).
Therefore, my response to my friend’s question that resulted in a much longer answer than she probably intended, is this: Life is not always easy. When it is tough, learn everything possible about it. Then, stand up. Get dressed and get busy. Nobody else will do it for us. Then sleep and recover after the hard work has been done, so that we can get ready to do it all over again when it is required of us. The rest, I believe, falls into place with a bit of divine love and intervention. A little faith goes a long way.
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca)