There is an abundance of talk, research, and writing about resilience these days. Many of us are running as fast as we can, and yet we still feel our energies waning and that our resilience is evaporating in reaction to a relentlessly stressful world. All manner of fatigue and exhaustion abound: workplace burnout, relationship troubles, work fatigue, emotion fatigue, and so on. I’m quite sure you can personally relate to fatigue, burnout, and many other varieties of self-dis-integration. The idea of resilience is that serious distress does not crush and burn us, and that we can successfully rebound and recover. While it’s essential to talk and do something about building a gentler and kinder world that doesn’t crush us, in the meantime, while stress is after us and on us, we need to learn how to practice resilience. I would like to share a recent experience of mine as an illustration of what’s meant by resilience and how that might work. I may summarize what I am about to say as pro-active prevention: noticing the early stages of personal system failure and stepping out of the destructive process, and finally, after failing to notice and ending up deeply “in the soup,” employing increasingly fitting recovery activities. Now the story . . .
The other day I had what could easily qualify for the term, ‘a bad day.’ I was scheduled for my first day of teaching on a Wednesday in January. On Tuesday, the day before my teaching day, I ate something that did not agree with me. I did not sleep well at all Tuesday night. I will spare you the details, but on Wednesday morning, it was clear that my digestive system was in rather poor form. I got up feeling not too well, and thought, “I wish I could call in sick.” This was not a viable option for the first day, especially since there was no such thing as a substitute teacher for the program, and I really wanted to be there and was determined to do so despite my state of being. I had done my best to prepare myself. I had gathered up all my materials. I made sure that I had my proper ID and key to get into the office that my friend and colleague made available to me, had my lunch ready to go, pre-paid for parking, and organized everything to leave in good time. I had done everything I could to smooth the way.
Feeling sick and weak, the speed at which I was going was not my usual. I was slow in getting down to our underground parking, but I still had enough time to get to school on time, barring very bad traffic. I went downstairs, walked over to my car, clicked the remote; nothing happened. A bolt of fear went through me. I thought, “The remote has died.” I opened the car door manually, got in, put the key in the ignition, turned it; again, nothing happened. A vague memory came back to me that the last time I was in the car, I turned on a light to see something. That was two days prior. I guess I didn’t turn off the light! Now I had a dead battery. I was lost in thought momentarily: “How am I going to get to school on time?” My somewhat foggy brain was fishing for ideas. I remembered that I had keys upstairs for my friend’s car, which she had not taken to work that day. Her car is parked in the same underground parking. I could not use my wife’s vehicle, as she was using it that day to drive to school. I went back to our apartment on the 11th floor, grabbed the key for my friend’s car, and went down in the elevator. When I got to the entrance to the underground parking, I realized that now I did not have the fob to open the door to the underground parking. Up I went again, grabbed the fob from my apartment, and came back down.
I got in to my friend’s car, turned the key, and again nothing happened. “What in the world . . .?” Fortunately, this was a brief issue, and the car did start. Off I went, hoping that traffic would be light. Amazingly, it was. That morning, I had arranged for two students who had taken the same course in the previous term to meet me 30 minutes before the class for check-in and connection. I had invited them to the first class as “culture transmitters.” When I arrived downtown, I looked at my watch and thought that I still might be able to make it to meet my two students on time. But then I realized that, since I drove my friend’s car, the pre-paid parking arrangement was useless, and now I had to pay again, which meant a few more minutes of delay to deal with the pay parking meter. As well, the ‘early bird’ rate that pre-paid parking qualified me for was unavailable by then. I called the number given for the parking lot. Amazingly I got someone almost immediately, who was very efficient at helping to resolve the situation.
When I arrived at the building door, I realized that I didn’t have my key for the office that I was using when teaching. I ran over to meet my students and had a brief but sufficient check-in and meeting. This colleague who was kindly sharing his office with me suddenly appeared. I explained my situation, and he said he would just leave the office door unlocked. On a day like this, the opportunity for me have space on the lunch break and to rest would be essential.
While I did have various thoughts of what else might go wrong, I was still relatively calm, even in my somewhat weakened condition, when I walked into my class to face a group of students that I did not know.
As is my way, I let the class know that I was struggling to some extent and what it was about, and that I fully intended to have a great class. Fast forward to the end of the class: indeed, the day-long class was great! How was that possible, given what I went through at the beginning of the day? I would like to pause here to analyze and reflect on the series of challenges that I encountered that morning and what took place in my response to them. To be sure, the nature of these challenges was not horrific, and the purpose of my following analysis is not to tell the world just how incredibly resilient I was in being able to handle the multiple challenges I faced that day. (If such were the case, I have ‘better’ personal stories to tell!) This analysis is strictly an exercise in studying and understanding, through a first-person account and reflection, the nature of resilience.
Indeed, y ou may wonder why I wasn’t panicky. In my younger days, I have had difficult experiences that would most often plunge me into panic states and multiple thoughts about how unfortunate I was and how unfair the world was to me! Not now. What made the difference? In one word: confidence, confidence about my ability to persist, and to deal with whatever happened based on my knowing of myself and prior experience. Despite being sick and weak and harassed, I was confident. What was I confident about? Definitely not about how this would all turn out. Rather, I was confident that I would survive the situation, and that I would do exactly what I could to help myself and help the situation to turn out for the best. Since I wasn’t always confident like this in my younger days, the confidence I was feeling is what is perhaps best termed ‘learned confidence.’ We can learn confidence! In my case, this learning of confidence took me a long time. Perhaps I am just a slow learner, but more likely, it is the case that I didn’t have a guide, a mentor, or a model who could tutor me and help to accelerate learning.
What is the basis of confidence? What is it made up of? I was confident about what I was doing in terms of teaching that day. I certainly knew the material based on years of experience, study, for sure some talent, and I had a plan as to how to conduct the class; all key elements for sure. More importantly, however, was my being able to show vulnerability, thereby creating connectivity with the students, despite the fact that it was the first day and that they were all strangers to me, with the exception of the two students from the previous term. Our culture generally discourages showing vulnerability. Typically, you may attempt to mask your vulnerability by putting on a brave front, as if nothing is the matter. Inside, you may feel nervous, anxious, and scared. You can readily go into survival distress and suffer badly. But what you end up doing here, unconsciously and inadvertently, is to treat the others to whom you are showing up as “enemies,” meaning that they threaten your survival, even if only emotionally.
If I were to signal, that is, implicitly communicate, to my students that they were my ‘enemies’ who could threaten my survival, I could have put myself into a battle situation in which I would be standing alone against the whole class. That should be scary enough to precipitate anxiety and panic attacks in me! What I needed at that moment are not enemies but supporters. The students who signed up to learn from me are not enemies. If anything, they would be most willing to support me to do my job of teaching them, teach them well, and to support their learning. Hence, I told the class that I would need their support. The effect was almost immediate: the students were obviously a bit surprised, and simultaneously moved to kindness and compassion. I wasn’t alone with my problems and difficulties, and I felt their solidarity with me and support for me. Thus, I would say that the number one ingredient of confidence is the sense of ‘not alone’ and that you are supported. You and I can together learn, increasingly with discernment, how to create, or turn a potential fear situation into one of support. I say ‘discerningly’ since, of course, it’s not as though we can just show vulnerability to any people anywhere and expect to receive support: a topic for another time.
You may also wonder: “What if you really couldn’t pull it off, had to stop the class, or was faltering during the class?” Won’t that be disastrous? Would I lose my reputation, lose my sessional position, and wouldn’t I be ashamed of myself? So can go my train of thought. Indeed, our culture again teaches us that to be successful in what we do, to get what we want, ensuring the right outcome, worrying about making mistakes (as if they are all fatal), and to be really concerned about bringing shame to anyone, including myself, is indeed the ‘right’ way to approach our undertakings. Again, my life has taught me the lesson, slowly and through numerous failure experiences, to shift out of this cultural mandate and norm, and to honour and embrace what is, not what results, and to prioritize process over outcome. Failure is not part of what is (reality), namely moment-by-moment (process). This is a very hard lesson: hard to take and hard to learn in a culture that is all about results and outcomes and images of success. It’s a life-saving lesson. And it’s a paradoxical lesson as well: being afraid of failure can kill you, by not supporting you to live fully in and into the moment. A life lived in fear is perhaps best thought of as at best a half a life. Hence, we might feel far more positive confidence if we are able to shift out of the whole cultural construct of outcome-based and fear-of-failure-driven ways of seeing and going about life. Instead, we could learn to trust process, accept reality, and feel more fully alive. Of course, such learning does take time and effort, in short, diligent practice.
There is another ingredient to self-confidence that I can share: the learning orientation. And this one complements the above-mentioned reality and process orientation. Back to my experience that day: As I indicated earlier, I was aware that no matter how bad things became, I knew that I would survive and that this would most likely be another day where I could explain and redeem. I just had to remind myself that I had the track record of surviving through all sorts of troubles for many decades! More importantly, I would also use any “failure” experience as a “teachable” and a personal “learnable” moment. As an educator, I knew that the reality of the situation would be most compelling as a learning opportunity. While I don’t wish to generalize that we learn most from difficult situations, and I certainly don’t endorse the notion that pain and suffering are our best teacher, it is important to recognize that we can cultivate our ability to learn from difficult even horrifying situations, difficult people, and our own difficult emotions.
The typical cultural mandate is to avoid pain. Remember that pharmaceutical companies make a fortune selling pain killers, not just for physical pain but also emotional pain. The phenomenon of addiction comes into the picture here, too, but I won’t go into that now. Become a robust and vigorous learner of and from Life—from your life that will throw every possible combination and permutation of challenges and difficulties your way! And sharing what you learn with others, especially while you are learning, would be a tremendous service to everyone around you.
I have cultivated, over the years of my professional practice and my personal life, the importance of authentic communication, honesty, and all in a way that fits the circumstances. That morning, I was sufficiently honest about my state of being with myself, and most importantly, I was able to authentically speak to my students in a tone that conveyed my experience and at the same time did not show any panic. Of course, the reality was that I was not panicky. If I were, and had tried to cover this up, that would most certainly have had a detrimental effect on the students, an effect that likely would have permeated the class for the whole term.
My troubles of the day did not end with the class. After class, I was to meet my friend whose car I had, and drive ourselves home. We arrived at the car to find a ticket for $80.00 on the windshield. I had given the wrong licence number! That took two days to sort out. The overall picture was many dilemmas, and mis-steps; a fair bit of time required to deal with messes I had created myself. But I was determined and persistent, which, too, is an ingredient of confidence.
I realized that while it was possible for me to bemoan my fate, I was not doing this. I was focused, determined, and aware of what I could control and what I could not. I also recognized that I could curse the gods for making my life miserable; or that I could take this as a challenge, and persevere with no guarantee that anything would work out, or even that I would have sufficient energy to get through the day. How is that I took such a proactive view? I have memories of a time when, as a teenager, I was having a particularly difficult and unhappy time. I did not usually share a lot with my Dad about my life and my concerns, but I did let him know that I was particularly troubled at that time. He responded with, “Son, you have to fight.” Somehow, this message was received and became a theme for me. I am also aware that my Dad in his way was also a fighter. No matter what was happening, he kept adjusting to circumstances and working towards whatever was needed. As well, my Mom was also a fighter. She would argue about anything that did not seem right to her. At the time, this was just annoying and frustrating to me, as her stance would often work against what I wanted. I realize now that her way, too, was a model for me. I recall her saying to me on more than one occasion, when she was bothered by my argumentativeness: “You should be a lawyer!” My very persistent and protracted arguments (against her!) in favour of what I wanted and felt I was entitled to. was certainly annoying to her. I can now say to her: “Mum, I appreciate you more than ever and thank you for modelling for me the essence of fighting spirit, and persistence! My resilience has its origin partially in you and partially in Dad.”
Now, I wish to go s little deeper into understanding the notion of confidence and also how confidence can grow. Confidence, as you saw in PART ONE, was central to the way I was framing resilience.
We learn from the dictionary (online) that ‘confidence’ means:
the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something
It is important to read this exactly as it is. Nowhere is there a mention of a good feeling, the word feeling is used but it is in the ordinary usage and does not refer to a body sensation or an emotion. An extreme example would be as follows: I used to have a friend who was invariably late. I would be quite annoyed. I felt I couldn’t trust him. I realized at some point that I could trust him. I could trust him to be late, or I could have confidence that he would be late.
I recommend becoming familiar with what it is that you actually can have confidence in with yourself. For example, in the not so good scenario, you can have confidence that you will be frightened and helpless as this is your pattern within certain circumstances. The starting point is working into owning the egoic self that embodies this experience, giving it a voice, feeling the associated emotions and body sensations, identifying the associated thoughts, and feeling the aliveness level and experience within you. As well, you can eventually identify the counter-point egoic self; say, this self thinks/wishes you could do/feel different and undertakes the same process as with the helpless identity. You can eventually facilitate the dialogue between them and work with them to grow their relationship.
As well, in looking back on my story, I realize that there is an important, really an essential ingredient of confidence that, again, has to do with learning: inner work. When I was much younger, I would often feel sorry for myself and believed that the unfairness of life, as I saw it, should not be directed at me. I believed I was the victim of the heedless and careless, if not cruel, world/universe/life/fate/mean gods, and so on. This way of perceiving my life experiences did not allow me to look at the part I played in the making of the event, even if I wasn’t solely responsible for what took place. For instance, it was I who failed to turn off the light in my car. Also, I ate something that I was suspicious of, in the service of not being wasteful, all the while knowing that I have a sensitive digestive system. In short, I didn’t exercise sufficient awareness of and respect towards my bio-system, ignoring my self-knowledge about it. Looking into myself and seeing what I did or didn’t do, in order to assess the part that I played in whatever is troubling and grieving me is the core of inner work. Inner work is not only in the service of preventing future misadventures but has also freed me up from the present moment self-sabotaging that would distract me from my path, and would enervate me for, doing something about any challenges confronting me.
My early days with inner work convinced me that self-pity ought not to interfere with taking responsibility for myself and my part in whatever happened. To that end, I would explore my experience to uncover my history that was implicated and the gold that might be discoverable in the tough experience. I undertook to thoroughly explore the sub-identity of my inner judge, my inner victim, and their inner relationship. Through this inner work I also came to increasingly recognize what I had no control over and how I might remain equanimous in the face of that which was uncontrollable. This aspect of inner work for being with no-control and equanimity is just as important as, if not more than, control we can exercise over ourselves and change we can create in ourselves, and of course, at least at times over the circumstances in the world.
As well, there is inner work to look after the frightened self, which, too, develops over time this resilience. If we equate resilience with not being afraid, many of us may never be resilient! However, to the extent that we can work with the frightened self, calming, soothing, and nerving it, to that extent we can be resilient. What this calls for is being able to face honestly and directly the frightened self—with kindness and compassion. As well, you can learn to work with the inner manifestation of the perpetrator and the relationship between these two sub-selves. I am now planting a few seeds with some concrete inner work suggestions for growing resilience. These are practicable ideas that may help you to develop and fine-tune your own resilience. More fully developing these ideas has to wait for future Field Notes, and even future workshops!
From the outset, it is important to become aware that you are having an unwanted experience, and to be as aware as possible as to what is actually happening within the field of your inner and relational world when life has grabbed you in an unexpected, unwanted, uninvited, and perhaps even horrifying way. With such awareness you can begin to use your consciousness to note what is happening in the dimensions of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, body sensation, and your sense of aliveness. As well, you can begin to identify the sub-identities that have been previously hidden in the shadows of your mind, and explore these sub-identities and the associated major and minor themes. You can do this by ‘observing’ these sub-identities, and by eventually identifying with them (literally acting as if they and you are one) and giving them a voice. You can get to know them from the inside. This is a very powerful knowing! You can feel the life of each sub-identity that is lodged within you and that has been at the limits of its ability to be. This will help you to help this self to become freed up from its perpetual way of being. What is its existential dilemma? Is it tired, lonely, isolated, and aware of being disliked? You can identify your own dislike for it, and perhaps you can begin to recognize further than you usually do that this frightened self has a good intention to help and that it lacks skill, as did the figures from your past who were instrumental in the creation of this sub-self. It does need to grow, and it needs to have a support person; a friend. The growth of the bond will be an important step towards becoming a more integrated being, which does not mean invulnerable or well protected against being hurt. Paradoxically, as we saw earlier, your openness to receiving life as it is, including the hurts, will in fact strengthen you and your resilience capacity.
I shall now end this lengthy two-part Field Note here! Knowing our current collective quest for resilience, Heesoon and I are dreaming up a workshop sometime in the late spring or early summer on the topic of Inner Work on Your Own, and with the Help of a Friend. I hope I have planted many seeds for the growth of your resilience in the above writing.
If you enjoyed this Field Note and have comments or questions, please consider leaving them on the Comments page. Perhaps we can grow a dialogue!
As always, great appreciation to Heesoon for her detailed attention to and help with this Field Note!