Updated: Aug 3, 2020
Cultivating resilience requires understanding its three building blocks. Ravens show us what this looks like. May we all be willing to learn from ravens to overcome life's difficulties.
By Cynthia Gomez
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience. The world is on fire, figuratively, at the moment. Here in the U.S., the pandemic raging on and the economy has been brought to its knees. Millions are facing loss — of loved ones, of jobs, homes, and possessions. Others are finding the state of the world to be overwhelmingly depressing. For so many right now, resilience is a matter of literal survival.
Yet, resilience is a trait we would all do well to cultivate. After all, pain of some sort finds us all, at one point or another. While some of us have a difficult time bouncing back from hardship, others seem to use their falls as fuel to rise up stronger than before. So what exactly, makes some people more resilient than others? How can we learn resilience?
Let me back up a bit here. Before asking how resilience can be learned, it’s important to consider whether it is a learnable thing. I posit that it is, and that we can learn it by first looking at others who display remarkable resilience, and second, through practice.
Last week, a colleague sent me an article by Author Diane L. Coutu on resilience that beautifully encapsulates many of my thoughts on the topic. Coutu, who has written extensively about resilience, has found that extraordinarily resilient people share three characteristics. These are traits we can cultivate at all times, so that they may support us during times of need.
First, resilient people accept their reality in all its harshness. They don’t sugarcoat their circumstances. They don’t engage in toxic positivity by pretending all is well and sticking their heads in the sand. This requires taking a good, hard look at where we are. Taking stock isn’t always easy, but it’s a necessary first step. After all, how can we bounce back from something if we’re not fully grounded in the reality of that thing? During her research into resilience, Coutu asked a Holocaust survivor who didn’t make it out of the camps. His response was “the optimists.” This doesn’t mean that optimism is bad. It just doesn’t serve us well when we use it to avoid taking stock.
The second trait of the very resilient is the ability to find meaning from their suffering. Sometimes, it’s all too easy when we’re in the thick of things to feel like victims of a chaotic and cruel world. A more helpful truth is that everything happens for rather than to us. There are more people in this world than there are experiences to be had. Even if the only meaning we can extract from an experience is that by coming out the other end, we are then in a position to help others going through the same thing, being able to engage in meaning making is comeback rocket fuel. We can find meaning by asking questions like, “What did this experience teach me?,” “How did I grow from this?,” and “How can living through this to tell my story help another?” This is the place for optimism; not in looking at the current situation, but by seeing the meaning in the bad.
Finally, resilient people know how to improvise. They find ways to make do with what they have, however little that may be. In the concentration camps, this often meant pocketing bits of string or wire to use later as shoestring, Coutu wrote. Having serviceable shoes was sometimes a matter of life and death. Sometimes, life falls apart so that we can reimagine a life that is better aligned to who we are as individuals and what we see as our purpose on this earth. What tools, knowledge, skills, and connections have you amassed, and how can you put them together in new ways to rebuild or rebound?
Look at Silicon Valley. Many people think of the big tech companies to come out of Silicon Valley as inspired creations by brilliant minds. The truth is that failure is the magic gravy or secret sauce of Silicon Valley. The best entrepreneurs are those who have failed their way to the top by learning to “fail better” each time. They know that failure is just a way of seeing what they don’t want, and what doesn’t work, so that they can get clear on what they do want and how to go about getting it.
Whether falling or failing, lean in. There are important lessons to be had. There is magic at the bottom. What may seem like a dark and dreadful pit is a nurturing womb for your new life. Here, anything is possible, if you’re willing to see that for yourself. From resilience, ferocity is born. Ferocity is the ability to run full steam towards the worthwhile things that challenge us, scare us, and threaten to undo us, because challenges present opportunities.
The things that break were meant to break. How will you put them back together? When we cultivate resilience, it’s easier to ride the waves of uncertainty; to see ourselves as adventurers prepared for whatever lies ahead. So far, 2020 has brought one curveball after another. If it feels like Jumanji has come to life all around us, let us understand that all of life is a game through which we’re meant to grow, and say, “game on.”
Author and Spiritual Entrepreneur Vishen Lakhiani, who founded Mindvalley, speaks a lot about becoming “unfuckwithable.” Pema Chödrön, one of my favorite authors and a Buddhist nun, talks about this too in her book, The Wisdom of No Escape, which I highly recommend. She writes:
“The wilder the weather is, the more the ravens love it. They have the time of their lives in the winter, when the wind gets much stronger and there’s lots of ice and snow. They challenge the wind. They get up on the tops of tress and they hold on with their claws and then they grab on with their beaks as well. At some point, they just let go into the wind and let it blow them away. Then they play on it, they float on it. After a while, they’ll go back to the tree and start over. It’s a game. Once, I saw them in an incredible, hurricane-velocity wind, grabbing each other’s feet and dropping and then letting go and flying out. It was a circus act.”
What are the ravens really doing here? They are: 1) taking stock of the conditions, such as wind speed and precipitation; 2) seeing what Shakespeare so beautifully said — that “all the world’s a stage” to make meaning of their world; and 3) using the only things they have — their claws, beaks, and trees — to play through the storm. This bears repeating: "When they play, they float on it." May we all embrace the wisdom of ravens.
Remember, no storm lasts forever. But often, how soon the rainbow appears is all about how you handle yourself through the hard parts.