The news is . . . a lot.
The Delta variant of COVID pushing hospitals in hot zones to the edge. Parents worried about sending their children back to school. Continued vaccine resistance and and an anti-mask movement. The United Nations climate report saying the planet is “Code Red” for humanity. The Taliban taking back towns and cities in Afghanistan. Revelations that the former president employed “extraordinary efforts” to overturn the 2020 election.
Pandemic. Parental fear. Political division that actually threatens people’s lives. Planet-wide crisis. Presidential lies.
In the midst of it, a small story from last week caught my attention. Although I originally missed it, on August 2, Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands fell in the qualifying heat of her 1,500 meter race.
She pulled herself up - and ran. As reported by NPR, “She was undeterred; she got back up and, now suddenly in last place, went on to pass 11 runners to finish first.” (You can view the race here on Twitter.) She would go on to win the bronze in the 1,500 and gold medals in two additional races - the 5,000 and 10,000 meters - in an amazing Olympic performance.
A reporter asked her what her strategy was for the races following the fall, Hassan replied, “After what happened this morning, all the drama, I don’t care,” she said. “Step by step, I’ll do my best.”
She fell. She got up. She won three medals.
It was spectacular. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was resilience.
Resilience doesn’t just happen. Resilience is something you build over time. A runner takes care of herself. She practices, practices, and practices. She trains. Develops grit, tenacity, and courage. When the fall comes - and it always comes - she has resources and experiences to draw on to get up and go on.
Even if you or I will never be an Olympic runner, the overwhelming stress of the news points to the fact that all of us are going to have to be more resilient than we ever imagined.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as adapting well in the face of adversity:
Life may not come with a map, but everyone will experience twists and turns, from everyday challenges to traumatic events with more lasting impact, like the death of a loved one, a life-altering accident, or a serious illness. Each change affects people differently, bringing a unique flood of thoughts, strong emotions and uncertainty. Yet people generally adapt well over time to life-changing situations and stressful situations—in part thanks to resilience.
Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.
While these adverse events, much like rough river waters, are certainly painful and difficult, they don’t have to determine the outcome of your life. There are many aspects of your life you can control, modify, and grow with. That’s the role of resilience.
I’m not a psychologist. In recent years, I’ve read a good deal about developing resilience. One book I’ve found helpful is Resilient by Rick Hanson. In it, he explores the building blocks of resilience in practical, non-technical ways.
Sifan Hassan gave me a dose of much needed hope - and a reminder of what resilience can do.
However, I’m also concerned. While personal resilience is necessary for our individual lives, we need to build resilience into our communities, our towns and cities, and our citizenship. When facing COVID or “Code Red” or the threats to democracy, we confront - and must overcome - challenges on both a personal and communal level. I can build compassion and mindfulness and grit into my life, but how do we build it into our society and politics? I might get up and go on, but what good does that do unless many, many millions do as well?
This is a big question - one that far exceeds an essay here at The Cottage. But there’s one thing I’d like to suggest to get a conversation started about communal resilience. Knowing history is an important building block for resilient communities.
In recent days, I’ve thought a lot about the mid-1980s. In 1983, the world came perilously close to nuclear war - twice. While there had been near nuclear wars in the 1960s (the Cuban Missile Crisis being the most well-known of these incidents), the 1980s close calls were truly terrifying. In the twenty years following the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear arsenals grew in size and destructive power, making the possibility of such warfare a guaranteed planet-wide annihilation event. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) was a real thing.
Most regular people didn’t know how close we’d come to blowing up everything, but it was frightening enough that we knew that we had to pull back. We pulled back politically and diplomatically. We pulled back through smarter treaty decisions, through pressure applied in mass marches, through protests, through scientists sounding alarms, and artists and musicians showing the threat in film and visual arts and song. We did what we had to do to draw back from the edge.
Of course, the nuclear threat is still with us but in different ways than it was in the mid-1980s. History shows that people can make a difference against an existential threat - and that politicians and world leaders will respond to the possibility of a world-ending crisis. It seemed unlikely at the time that the nuclear freeze movement or a bunch of Hollywood films or fearful voters would have any impact (after all, Ronald Reagan was president!), but it all mattered. It made a difference.
Yes, history can be a dumpster fire.
But dumpster fires have a tendency to bring out the best in many people, especially when we join together. History is full of movements that rise up to put out fires, whether in the 1980s or 1940s or 1920s or 1860s or 1350s or . . . Of course, we’ve never quite faced this particular set of crises before - and these are truly frightening times. Our ancestors, however, had never faced what they tackled either. They were terrified then. There have been many moments of human history when it seemed that the end was at hand, when the odds were stacked against us humans. Knowing those stories is important to help us get up - and get on with what needs to be done.
Resilience is not just about winning our own race. It is also about the team. We’re going to have to build resilient communities. At this moment of history, we need to get up and go on for the human race - not alone, but together.
Step by step, we have to do our best. Let’s all be Sifan Hassan.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
— Marge Piercy, from “To be of use”
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? . . .
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
— Miller Williams, from “Of History and Hope”
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.
— Joy Harjo
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
— William Stafford
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Second time in 24 hours Resilience has shown up for me. Sharon Salzberg in her interview on the Growing Edge podcast provided an important “how to” idea. Resilience training -- practice letting go and starting over again. Powerful practice I think. Powerful mindset, clearly exhibited by this runner. Resilient communities cannot be designed, or legislated. They are the result of resilient citizens, regularly thinking and acting in this way.
Thanks for this. I've been feeling pretty overwhelmed by the dumpster fires on all sides, in addition to more than a fair share of family issues. I always look forward to your writings for a bit of wisdom and perspective. I'll keep getting up and taking it one step at a time.