A life-or-death situation causes a reaction. You really don’t know how you will react until you face it. You have expectations about yourself, about the kind of person you are, or the kind of person you want to be. But when you face tragedy or loss, you find out what you really are made of.
The number one question I’m asked is: How are you so resilient?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back. My life has given me recurring opportunities to practice resilience. I moved 23 times by the time I was 19 years old. In El Salvador soldiers held us at gun point, with machine guns. We experienced shoot outs, bombings and riots. The military threatened to kill my dad. Terrorists threatened to kidnap my sisters and me. When people hear my story, they ask me about resilience. My whole missionary family became resilient.
I don’t like telling my story because immediately people put me on a pedestal, like I am something special. I think every person faces tests of character in large or small ways. Every person demonstrates who they are in a crisis. Life always stretches us if you let it. I am aware many have suffered far greater setbacks than I have, but I have learned a few things about resilience that I want to share with you.
My resilience came out of my expectations about life. In a way, I see life as a trial. Crisis strikes every person, in every country. I expect to face a crisis from time to time. People act like they are unusual but they are rather common.
After an event like a trauma, tragedy or loss, your first reaction just comes out of you. You don’t have time to think. Afterward, you make decisions. How will I face this situation? If my first reaction was horrible or hysterical, I can change. You can get a hold of yourself. Talk to yourself.
I have experienced all the common reactions to trauma and loss: shock, numbness, confusion, disbelief, weeping, shaking, nightmares, laughing and crying at the same time. I have looked to the sky in exasperation and screamed, “I can’t take it anymore!” I thought I would not live to tell these stories. How do you process multiple and continuous traumatic events? At times, I thought my brain would explode or I would go crazy but I didn’t. I developed resilience.
I didn’t learn resilience from one event, one book, or one sermon. I learned to be resilient over a period of months and years by contemplating my own survival. At first, I learned resilience by reading stories of determination. I was 12 years old when I discovered “Drama in Real Life” articles in Reader’s Digest. Each article features a life and death story. I read about floods, earthquakes, sinkholes, maulings, accidents, hikers stranded in the mountains, people lost at sea or in the snow. I must have read through several decades of the magazine.
These stories all followed the same pattern. A person experienced a terrible accident or disaster and they survived. They suffered, but endured the hardship. They repeatedly encouraged themselves, “You can make it. You can do this.” They focused on achieving small goals despite their injuries, hunger or thirst. “Just make it for one more hour.” Or, “Keep walking until you are over the next ridge.”
In each story, the survivor struggled against their thoughts and feelings. Their mind told them to stay calm; their emotions told them to panic. They had to rein in their emotions in survive. Even though they felt like screaming hysterically or running away. They commanded their mind to take control. I admired the ones who let themselves cry for a while, then stopped crying and mustered themselves to continue.
In every story, I imagined myself as the main character. I would think, what would I do? How would I survive? I wanted to be the strong character in the stories, not the one who whined or quit early on.
The first test of character is whether you believe in yourself. Can you get through a crisis? If you tell yourself that you can’t handle this, you won’t be able to.
Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without it we can’t practice any other virtue with consistency. – Maya Angelou
To have courage, you need to tell yourself that you will get through this. If you don’t believe it, say, “I can get through this” over and over and over. Whatever you think consistently becomes your truth.
I made several decisions about survival based on my reading:
- I want to survive.
- Life is worth living even if I am missing a limb, an eye or whatever.
- My thoughts will keep me determined. Guard them.
- One of the bravest things I do is to face myself and change.
- If I don’t like my first reaction, change it.
- Our ability to endure is very high.
- Life eventually returns to normal. Then it’s time to do laundry again.
In a crisis, some things are out of your control. A disaster is like a wave. You must be humble enough to know when it is time to ride the wave that you can’t control. Ride it until it’s over. Then take control when it’s over. In a way, a crisis teaches you how small you are and yet how powerful you can be. The resilience comes at the end. You take back control over your life. You don’t have to be a victim; instead be a survivor.
How is it that I am resilient? Practice, practice, practice. Perhaps you can practice too by reading the next blog about three levels of resilience.