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The Art of Resilience

Griffin and friendPelé called soccer the “Beautiful Game” and I think the photo to the right, taken after Griffin’s last game, exemplifies this.

I was especially gratified to see these smiles because it was a hard game with some official rulings that were very frustrating to Griffin.

Incidentally, in a previous game, Griffin had been tearful after a particularly egregious ruling, and after the game I tried to remind him that there are “bad calls” in every game and they are opportunities for him to practice resilience in the face of adversity.

Griffin said my advice wasn’t helpful and just then a friend’s mom came up to us and embraced him in a hug and said how sorry she was about the bad call. I saw Griffin melt in her arms and I realized that my “teachable moment” could have waited until after Griffin was comforted.

Later that day Griffin was able to reflect on the game with more equanimity and I know we both learned important lessons from that day.

Keep reading to learn more about the importance of resilience and how you can develop more in your life too.

If you were to gather up the day’s news you would invariably come to the conclusion that the world needs saving, right? Well, I expect it will need saving tomorrow, too.

In the meantime, I am going to reflect on what it means to “do something” in the face of great suffering.

Yes, the reports from around the world are dire, but they reflect something else, too: The scale of suffering is balanced by resilience, courage, and hope.

I’m reminded of a recent article that described resilient people: they’re distinguished by the fact that after a trauma, they don’t just return to their point of departure. They cope and then get strength in the future from their success in the past.

Our resilience as individuals has created an extraordinarily resilient species. Studies show that many people will come out of a trauma stronger for the experience.

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama 1968Thomas Merton was a 20th century American Catholic writer, a Trappist monk, a poet and a social activist. He promoted interfaith understanding and was one of the first Westerners to develop relationships with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn.

He was a man who saw the suffering in the world—and had dedicated himself to addressing it—but he wrote “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”

He proposed that unless rest, wisdom, and delight are embedded in the problem-solving process itself, the solution we patch together is not likely to offer genuine relief. Born of desperation and exhaustion, it almost guarantees that an equally perplexing problem will emerge as soon as it is put into place.

Really, what good can come from the nonstop effort? When we are working constantly, eating poorly, sleeping little, stressing and worrying, we are little good to ourselves. In this condition, how can we possibly be of service to others?

I often fear that it may be too late; that there is much to do; that there is not enough time, money, or people to do it. But I also realize that this fear itself wears me down. I believe that the overwhelm, the overwork, the over-caring that we feel actually diminishes our ability to care, our willingness to help and our effectiveness in the long run.

I can’t speak for others. I can only look at my own life and ask these questions. And so I do: Are my important relationships suffering? Am I frequently mentally fatigued and emotionally fragile? Am I experiencing an illness or pain in my body?

The answer to any one of these questions is too often yes. So I go back to Thomas Merton’s proposal for undoing all of this harm: Commit to rest, wisdom and delight. Not as a means of avoiding our work in the world, but as a means of making us stronger for the work in front of us.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, wrote that we are at risk of losing the talent of appreciating ease. I think she’s right. Italians actually have a name for this talent—dolce far niente (which translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing”).

The fact that we don’t even have an English equivalent for this lovely sentiment speaks to a certain malaise in our culture, don’t you think?

So here’s my prescription for ridding myself of the malaise and injecting some dolce far niente into my system:

Start small. Eat and drink well. Treat others as they wish to be treated. Smile and make eye contact with the people around you. Say you’re sorry simply and without defensiveness. Learn from your mistakes. Be a good friend. Take walks daily and look up often. Laugh a lot.

And then, once you’re rested and ready to begin again, focus on the work in front of you.

Ann Patchett and Barbara KingsolverThis week was remarkable because I attended a book event with two of my all-time favorite authors—Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. The photo shows Ann on the left and Barbara on the right. We were celebrating the release of Ann’s new book Commonwealth—her first novel in over 5 years and absolutely worth the wait.

Fortunately my husband is as passionate about books as I am and after lugging dozens of boxes of books from one small apartment to another during our school years we both agreed that the first amendment we would make to our new house would be to build enormous bookcases to make a proper home for our beloved books.

Our carpenter refused to build them into the wall, claiming that too many of her creations had been destroyed after their owners—despite their best intentions—ended up moving away. Well, 18 years later we’re still in the same house with no plans to move. Happily, the bookshelves are also still there, and they continue to be my favorite spot in our house.

I can look at my favorite books on the shelves and be transported immediately to the time when I first read them. I can remember the experiences they left me with so clearly. And when I re-read them, I discover even more. Not just in the book: I commonly discover more in myself than was there before.

I’ve learned that there is never any trouble that an hour’s worth of reading can’t help. Each time your mind races or your emotions sink and you feel bad about yourself, try to do what I do: Slow down, breathe, and pick up a good book.

Before you continue reading, I’d like you to sit quietly for a few seconds. Take in a full breath, let it fill your lungs, and then release it slowly. Repeat this simple breathing exercise and include the words from my favorite meditation:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.~
Thich Nhat Hahn

I try to remember this little meditation practice when I feel challenged, tired and inadequate.

The 12th-century poet Rumi said each of us is trying to hide the same secret from each other. It isn’t anything malicious—we’re just hiding the mere fact of our flawed humanness. Rumi called it the “Open Secret.”

I know that I expend too much energy feeling less-than-adequate and I expend even more of it trying to remind myself that I am just fine exactly the way I am. For me—and probably for you, as well—a lot of my feelings of inadequacy stems from a sense that other folks have it more together than I do.

being mindfulBut I do it to myself, too: I recently shared with a friend the things I do that contribute to my feeling inadequate: I compare myself to others (and I always come up short), I struggle to celebrate others’ successes (they’ve got friends and family who will do that, right?), and I daydream about being “saved” (my forthcoming children’s book will be wildly successfully—with no marketing effort on my part, or I’ll receive a large inheritance from a long-lost relative—even though I have none, or I’ll win the Powerball – which I don’t play).

Yet I suspect that even the people who seem to be living out what I would call the “perfect” life probably have an Open Secret, too. And while the friend who let me catalogue my self-sabotage strategies didn’t say that she has the same weaknesses, she accepted them without judgment. And it felt good to share them.

But within a short time I found myself once more comparing myself to the more-together-than-thou in my life. And once more having trouble accepting my own foibles as right and necessary. Why is that?

This difficulty is especially mysterious to me because I’m not all that interested in sugar-sweet, sun-filled stories anyway.

In fact, all of my favorite stories are pretty bleak and don’t end particularly well. (I loved Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.) And yet in every one of the stories I get the most out of, love for others—and true connection with them—bring meaning and solace. My favorite tales are about hope and hopelessness; home and exile; joy and sorrow.

Great writers are supremely gifted at creating characters who wrestle with great challenges and experience a more profound sense of meaning and joy because of them. If you are feeling alienated, or anxious, or full of grief—or if the despair of the world is weighing heavy on your heart—look no further than any number of classic stories to help you find light in the darkness.

Think of the Lord of the Rings. It’s the ultimate story of strangers creating community, sharing a difficult journey, helping each other to achieve success against all odds—and ultimately learning though adversity to savor the passing moments of their ordinary lives.

Getting to the space where you can do that, of course, may mean making peace with the darkness first. To do this, I take a page from another of my favorite novels: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. In this book the protagonist, faced with a rough patch in his life, is told by a wise man that he must “sit at the bottom of the well” for a while—he must face his difficulties and, for a while at least, not strive against them, but seek to understand the lessons they offer.

I have taken this so much to heart that most of my friends know that “sitting at the bottom of the well” is my way of saying that after a tough day, or week, or month I am going to my quiet place in order to discover what I am supposed to learn.

Here are the questions that usually present themselves to me: Is there someone I need to forgive? Is there something I would like to say that would improve upon the silence? Am I longing for more? What can I do in this moment – what one small thing – to show appreciation for my precious life?

And then, after taking some time to walk in the darkness, I take a deep breath and know that the darkness is also a part of the journey. I let it lead me back up to the light, where I always find my authenticity, power and joy.

Unconditional Friendship (for yourself and others)

October 11, 2016

Have you ever heard the saying, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold”? We used to sing it in rounds when I was a Girl Scout. The photo to the right is me with dear friend of almost 20 years – taken at the special dinner she treated

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Ready to Reinvent Yourself?

October 4, 2016

Tomorrow is my birthday! I’ve already a jump on the celebration with the two sweet boys on the right. We went to our favorite restaurant and they kept me wonderfully entertained with “groaner” stories, jokes and riddles. Birthdays offer a wonderful opportunity to appreciate all of your awakenings and accomplishments from the previous year and

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How to “Accept” a Bad Situation

September 27, 2016

The photo to the right is Griffin with his coach after another great game last Saturday. I really appreciate Coach Chris because he manages to be unfailingly positive and supportive as he inspires his players to stretch and grow. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to coach – and to

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How to Forgive

September 20, 2016

Last week Griffin had two days off for school to allow for Parent Teacher Conferences and we spent one of the days with one of his best friends by the river. It was a lovely celebration of great friendship and nature. If you’ve been following along for the last few months, you know that the

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how to stop putting yourself last on your list

September 13, 2016

The photo to the right is Griffin with his soccer team after their first game of the season. You can see from all the happy faces that they are off to a great start! This is Griffin’s fifth year playing soccer—the longest time he has ever devoted himself passionately to any activity—and he recently told

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How to let go of resentment after a betrayal

September 6, 2016

That’s a photo of me, Griffin and his best friend, Elijah, after a very satisfying and sweaty soccer session! Doug and I played soccer with them for over an hour - and then they continued to play long after we left. The play date lasted over 5 hours and Doug and I hardly saw them

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How to Let Go of Guilt

August 30, 2016

Last week Griffin started seventh grade! He keeps saying that each day gets better and better – don’t you just love that? One of the things I work with my clients on most intensely is getting them to look forward to their days with the same enthusiasm. Often, though, one of the things they have

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What to Do When Anything is Possible (and it always is!)

August 23, 2016

Doug took the photo of me running along the beach at dawn one morning last week when we were at Folly Beach, and it helps me remember the incredibly powerful feeling I always have as I run with the surf crashing beside me. Every morning Doug, Griffin, and I woke early so that we could

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