Resilience: a lesson from the grand master
Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit American shores and we began a period of isolation, I started reading Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s amazing autobiography chronicling his incredible life’s journey. I was interested in how different people react and adapt to a crisis; after all, the pandemic is a catastrophe the likes of which we have never experienced. Because of that submicroscopic, infectious agent (said to be some 10,000 times smaller than a grain of sand), millions have lost loved ones and livelihoods while living apart from family and friends for months. At the same time, we’ve watched the nation submerge under a tidal wave of protests and political unrest that elicits the worst humankind can dish out.
I picked up Mandela’s book because my belief then was that he is the gold standard for survival and recovery. Reading his epic life story reinforced my impression of him: his journey from prison to worldwide honor is the example of resilience we all need today.
Resilience is an old physics term that refers to a certain property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched or compressed. In human terms, it describes our ability to rebound from illness, dramatic life changes or misfortune. Mandela experienced the worst of these events after he was sentenced to hard labor in prison for his actions as a leader of the antiapartheid movement in South Africa. He spent 27 years surviving inhumane conditions: he slept on a straw mat in a damp cell for many of those years; was beaten and humiliated; and suffered vision damage while working in a lime quarry in the hot, South African sun. Yet, when he emerged from brutal confinement, he was not broken or consumed by hatred and bitterness. Instead, within a few years, he achieved his life-long dream to end apartheid, became his country’s president, and won the coveted Nobel Peace Prize—along with worldwide respect and admiration.
I am not suggesting we all should or could be like Mandela. I think there are few people who could emulate him—his incredible accomplishments seem almost super-human. However, it does beg the question: how can some people be knocked down by adversity and yet come back at least as strong as before?
The answer is that they do not allow difficulties—even traumatic events or failure—to overcome them. People who are resilient find a way, over time, to change course, heal emotionally, and continue forward.
Failure is an opportunity for tremendous feedback
Resilient people look at difficulties as challenges and opportunities to learn, not paralyzing events. There are components to resilience, such as competence, confidence, character, self-control and coping mechanisms, all of which are crucial assets.
One of the greatest tools at our disposal in building resilience is a mindset that enables us to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. For all the setbacks in Mandela’s life, he never saw the situation as a result of his own inadequacy. Instead, he saw life as a mixture of some losses and some victories.
Psychological research shows that, if we can move past the raw emotions that come with failure or setbacks, take an honest look at why things went wrong, and focus on how we can improve on the forward trail, we are following the right path toward building resilience. By recognizing that failure can provide a growth opportunity, we can learn from the experience and avoid similar mishaps in the future.
To thine own self be kind
We all need self-compassion—the ability to relate to ourselves in a way that is forgiving. It’s about being kind to ourselves when things go awry, rather than berating ourselves over what we did wrong. In a world of winner-takes-all, this can be difficult for some of us, yet it’s a critical skill for developing resilience and inner fortitude.
Here are some simple ways to program your brain and strengthen your resiliency muscle:
• Begin each day by telling yourself something positive, like how well you have handled a particular situation, how good you look, and virtually anything else that will make you smile.
• Celebrate your wins, no matter how small.
• Stop comparing yourself to others.
• End all toxic relationships. Anyone who makes you feel less than anything but grand does not belong in your world. • Find something to be grateful for every day, and remember that sometimes little things can mean the most: the sun is shining, the coffee shop has the scones you crave, your favorite pants fit again…the options are out there, if you’re receptive to them.
Realistically, your resilience undoubtedly has a connection to your gene pool and the way you were raised. However, evidence proves that this trait goes beyond genetics. While your gene pool and personal history cannot be modified, there’s nothing to stop you from developing your resiliency muscle. Breaking out of negative thoughts, looking at failure as an opportunity for learning and growth, and being grateful for what you do have will get your journey started. See more at https://charlesvfirlotte.com/