Surviving is A Matter of Resilience

I’ve been having a run of misfortune lately, so I was quite excited last week to find a four-leaf clover. Turns out, I’m allergic. Now I have a rash of good luck.

Note to self: Find followers with sense of humor.

Back to work. How many of you watch the TV series “Survivor?” It’s okay to admit it; it’ll never leave this room. (Evil smile)

For those who kept their hands down, “Survivor” is an alleged “reality” show following a group of strangers stranded on a desert island or dropped into Dante’s third level and given really disgusting tasks like eating bugs and stabbing each other in the back.

Every few days or so, the group, which has split into smaller groups, “votes someone off the island,” which is supposed to be a punishment. Imagine, being forced to return to civilization, hot baths, and no worm cakes. Sucks to be them, I guess.

What makes this so funny is that the last man (or woman) standing is the SURVIVOR and wins a ton of cash.

But in actuality, surviving a few weeks in what most of us would see as a vacation paradise, knowing rescue is coming and emergencies will be dealt with immediately, doesn’t really take that much stamina. The real trick is surviving this episode we call Life.

In this reality show, we don’t get to chose to participate. We don’t travel to exotic locales and we don’t get prizes for eating bugs and leaves. For some, that’s a luxury meal.

Our challenges aren’t to build a bridge of leaves and cross it, or start a fire with two wet sticks and a piece of charcoal. We get things like mortgages, bills, kids, work, traffic, stress, cancer, unemployment, and reality TV.

We don’t get to go home just because we don’t like each other. We’re pretty much stuck where we land, with no rescue in sight, no matter how uncomfortable or dangerous our circumstances become.

And we don’t get a gajillion bucks for sticking it out. When it’s over, we’re usually 6 feet under.

But, as in TV reality, people react to their challenges in different ways. Some whine, kvetch, moan, and go home with their tails between their legs at the least little toe stub. Others, however, stand tall no matter how strong the wind. They are unbending in an F5, swim strongly in a flood, stay on their feet in a magnitude 9 earthquake. They are, in a word, survivors.

But what is it that makes a person survive the most Life can throw at them, while others fall apart over a hangnail? What qualities make people stronger than it seems this fragile container of blood and muscles and bones should be?

I asked myself this question after a conversation with a friend several years ago. After telling her about losing my job and breaking up with my boyfriend on two consecutive days, not to mention the broken toilet in between, she gasped and said, “Oh, my gosh! What are you going to do?

I shrugged. “Now I’m going to bring my sweaters up from the basement because I have extra closet space.”

She looked at me with either admiration or horrified incredulousness, I’m not sure, and asked, “How do you remain so up all the time?”

Have to admit, I was at a loss for words there. So I began to wonder: What is it that keeps some of us going? What gives some people emotional resilience, the ability to pick themselves up after a fall and keep walking, blisters and skinned knees and all?

Emotional resilience is defined by psychologists as being able to spring back emotionally after difficult or stressful times.

Stress leads to negative emotions, such as anger and depression. When someone gets trapped in those emotions, they have lost their resilience. Resilient people are able to tap into their positive emotions no matter what the circumstance and pull away from the negative.

Emotionally resilient people—survivors—share some personality traits. Among those traits are a strong sense of control, reasonable expectations, persistence, responsibility, empathy, optimism, and a strong sense of humor.

People who have a sense of control over life, who have realistic expectations and embrace responsibility never get overwhelmed—for very long—even when Lake Ponchartrain is carrying away their antebellum mansion. They say, “I may be evacuating today, but I’ll be back tomorrow. And the house will rise again!”

That’s the attitude that will rebuild New Orleans, not the “The government failed so sue the (expletive deleted expletives)!” off non-resilient non-survivors.

My daughter told me she was hearing voices, so naturally, I overreacted and dragged her to a psychiatrist. He put her on some anti-psychotic medication and told us to come back in a week.

At the follow-up, he asked my daughter if the prescription had helped.

“Well,” she said. “Now I’m seeing things.”

“You’ll have to change her meds,” I admonished the doctor.

“No, I don’t want to change,” my daughter said. “Now I can actually see who’s talking to me.”

Optimism is, of course, the ability to see the positive side of any situation, the “glass is half-full” school. Pessimists, on the other hand, always see a half-empty glass and focus on what’s not there, whether the liquid in the glass is brandy or sulfuric acid.

I used to be the other one: not only was my glass half-empty, but someone probably spit in it when my back was turned. Being a pessimist made life a lot more predictable—nothing good was ever going to happen, so I was never surprised by disaster.

And you have to laugh at Life. Kids know how to do that.

M oldest daughter took the news of an impeding divorce between her parents rather matter-of-factly. She told me she thought our problems were largely psychological.

“How so?” I asked.

“You’re psycho and Dad’s logical.”

Persistence means never giving up. Some people call it stubbornness.

As babies, we don’t walk the first time we put our feet down to the ground. We fall. We stumble. We totter and fall again. Sometimes we fall easy, sometimes hard. But eventually, we get our feet under control and start cruising. That’s persistence. And it’s hard-wired into all of us. Some of us just lose it as we get older and more fearful.

Psychologist Peter Ubel, author of You’re Stronger Than You Think: Tapping Into the Secrets of Emotionally Resilient People, says most people underestimate how resilient they are.

“Many more of us have that kind of resilience or DNA within us,” he said in an interview for CanWest News Service in May 2008. “We just haven’t been forced to recognize or use it.”

Adversity can overwhelm us, but it doesn’t have to. Often, Ubel says, the trite saying is true: Adversity can help us focus on what’s important.

“If you don’t think every day is a good day, just try missing one.”

–Cavett Robert, Something to Smile About

So, I’m unemployed. And single. I’ve survived both before, and can again. I can find a better job, one more suited to my talents. And if I decide I need a man in my life, I’ll look for one who adores me and treats me like the goddess I am.

I can look at my life as half-empty or half-full. I’ll stick with the half-full, because while a glass half-full of beer is half as satisfying, a half-glass of castor oil is much less nasty than a full one.