As Hurricane Sandy made its way through several states, causing damage and devastation, one thing that stands out in the eye of the storm is the calmness with which most people are meeting this calamity. This is one of the enduring characteristics of the American people: an unrivaled strength and tenacity in the face of adversity. It echoes Martin Luther King's words of long ago: "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." The ability to see around the corner—to know that tomorrow will be better than today—is an admirable quality, one that fortifies people to cope with whatever hand is dealt to them. This is called resilience.
Resilience is defined as the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, threats and significant sources of stress. Resilience is not something that is innate to some and not to others. Resilience is a trait that can be learned by everyone. It involves the ability to manage our thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
How can we all develop stronger resilience? Here are some pointers:
1. Place a high value on relationships. Cultivating deep connections and forming positive relationships with others are the cornerstones of resilience. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers or neighbors, relationships are our emotional and spiritual shelter. Consider in these last few days of havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy, how important it is to have the support of people who care for you. In our harried and busy lives, working to establish ourselves, to acquire goods and to reach for success, it is sometimes easy to unintentionally neglect our most precious bonds—those with our spouses, children, parents and friends.
2. Expect a positive future. Even in the worst circumstances in history, people have rebounded. When the world was torn apart, Winston Churchill reminded people to keep up their spirits and to never give up. One of his memorable speeches included this line from a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough, "In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly! But westward, look! the land is bright!" The land is bright indeed.
3. See things with new eyes. Avoid viewing difficult events as unconquerable crises. Many things that happen are beyond anyone's control but while we can't control the events, each one of us can control how we view and respond to the events. Those who make an effort to view events as temporary and not pervasive are more optimistic and, consequently, better equipped spiritually to cope with adversity. Hurricane Sandy may have destroyed buildings, blown away cars and crippled public transportation, but it has spared your loved ones, your health and strengthened your bond with your neighbors.
4. Increase your self-awareness. Consider how you coped with adversity in the past. How were you able to surmount obstacles in your path? What inspiration can you derive from yesterday that can brighten today? What have been your sources of hope? Reflecting on the past is often a guiding light for the future. Perhaps this is what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said: "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'"
5. Give of yourself. In times of crises, most people rise to the occasion. Extend this to make it a part of who you are every day: be a person who has a generosity of heart, whether it is through a word of appreciation, a thoughtful gesture, or a sense of understanding the people you deal with on a regular basis. In Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life, George E. Valliant followed over 800 individuals, men and women, rich and poor, for more than 50 years, from adolescence to old age. He discovered that one of the most powerful predictors of successful aging is habitually using mature coping mechanisms or defenses. He calls them "making lemonade out of life's lemons." One of these coping mechanisms is sublimating, that is, diverting the energy behind feelings and thoughts of despair to more constructive pursuits. Another is altruism (doing for others what they need, not what we want to do for them.) In a subsequent interview, Valliant was asked what he had learned from his longitudinal study of men. Valliant's response was: "That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people." These are some of the recipes for developing resilience at any age.
Resilience helps us to bend without breaking and once bent, to bounce back from adversity. Author Bern William said: "Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit." There is no fragility in the American spirit—American resilience is legendary and is an inspiration to other nations.
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