Pondering Resilience

my story Nov 11, 2012

This week I read an article by Andrew Zolli in the New York Times entitled, "Learning to Bounce Back."  The article explains how the sustainability movement is splitting into two camps. The first is focused on an idea that by "finding the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another." The second is starting a new dialogue about resilience, "how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world."

I think that the current debate over the environment is so far removed from actual data and logic, that it is hard to even have a conversation with friends and family about it. I heard an interesting story on This American Life recently, where Dr. Roberta Johnson, the Executive Director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, debated a high school freshman skeptic. Dr. Johnson develops curricula on climate change and presented her best evidence to the student who watches Glenn Beck daily and held very strong beliefs on the topic of climate change. After patiently talking through all of the student's objections and theories, and presenting new evidence on the reality of climate change, the student was still convinced there was some political agenda behind the information and that she wasn't getting to see the whole side.

The conversation feels like an either/or dichotomy based on faith - either you believe that the earth is this amazing resource with the ability to adapt to whatever we throw at it, or you believe that the earth is this amazing resource that is so fragile that we will destroy it and ourselves in the process if we don't make drastic changes RIGHT NOW. The likelihood of humanity working together to achieve equilibrium with the planet and each other feels impossible to most, so they loose the motivation to take any action even if they do believe the end is immenent.

Which is why the idea of resilience thinking might be taking root. "It is a broad-spectrum agenda, that at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions, and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people's psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances." What is the point of building LEED certified, green buildings if they are incapable of weathering a storm?

I think it is interesting that psychologists and sociologies and neuroscientists are just beginning to understand what makes you more or less resilient. Things like "the reach of your social networks, the quality of your close relationships, your access to resources, your genes and health, your beliefs and habits of mind," all influence your ability to adapt to stress and change.

I wanted to better understand some of the practices used to teach resilience, so that I might be better prepared to handle the stress of graduate school without PTSD! Here are a few practices I identified from around the web and using Goldie Hawn's book "Ten Mindful Minutes" that might help:

  • Become present. Without being fully present in the moment, we are more likely to react to events from a smaller perspective or out of habit. It is easier to see a whole range of alternatives when you are fully present and relaxed. Mindful breathing and sensing are great tools to bring you into the present moment.
  • Figure out where you have control, and where you don'tPolarity management is a version of this idea, it helps you to see which problems are impossible to solve and to stop spending so much energy resisting or trying to fix it. When you recognize that you are not in control, it allows you to relax and focus on the choices you can make and forces you to be more resourceful.
  • Choose and act from a place of purpose.  In order to connect to purpose, or a more meaningful goal, ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?"  This allows you to maintain perspective and will give your tasks a different energy then when you are acting from a place of SHOULD.  Leadership coach, Doug Silsbee, observes, "the essence of resilience is making choices, in the moment, about what we focus our attention on and what we organize ourselves towards."
  • Choose your perspective. From Doug Silsbee, "Resilient people recognize the power of perspective, and understand that they can actually choose a generative perspective on any situation. Viktor Frankl famously said, after spending years in a Nazi concentration camp, "The last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitudes." Frankl’s resilience, derived from the internal locus of control that this wisdom represents, was instrumental in his inspiring survival of one of the most traumatic experiences that anyone could have."
  • Ask for help if you need it. Delegate what you can. Figure out what you need and ask for help. Bringing other resources in can help you keep moving on something when you are overcommitted. It helps you feel unstuck.

I think it is interesting that the army is using resilience training in a big way to help combat the stress of military service for service members and their spouses. According to a Time article that covered the program, mental toughness comes from thinking like an optimist. “People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable,” notes Penn psychology professor Martin Seligman, describing the intervention in a recent journal article. When such individuals encounter adversity, they think to themselves: “It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.” Sergeants learn to analyze their beliefs and emotions about failure, and to avoid describing failure as permanent, pervasive and out of their control — all characterizations that undermine mental toughness.


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