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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.