By the time I moved to El Salvador, I was 13 years old and I had contemplated my death many times. I planned how to survive in many different scenarios. (See last blog: The #1 Question People Ask Me: How are you so resilient?)
Resilience came from my own reading, talks with my Mom and Dad and time alone with God. Mom and Dad were clear:
In life, you never give up; no matter what.
I see resilience on three levels.
First, you bounce back and can function even though you are in pain.
Second, you bounce back, and can function and take on a positive outlook.
Third, you bounce back, and can function, take on a positive outlook and have a healed heart.
Level One: You bounce back and can function even though you are in pain.
In El Salvador there were violent incidents almost every week. Therefore, we had to learn to get on with life. I still had school work to complete and chores to do.
A tragedy or loss can knock you down and leave you hurting. That’s normal. If you are stunned, it’s hard to function. The first level of bouncing back is being able to function even when you are hurting.
I learned to put my emotions aside and deal with them at a later time. I didn’t let my emotions control me. This is a very tricky spot if you want to stay healthy. Denying, minimizing, or numbing your emotions can help you get through a tough day, but it’s not a good strategy in the long run. There was a time that I had numbed my emotions. Part of healing in level two and three is to thaw out emotions so you won’t lose connection to your heart.
Level Two: You bounce back, can function and take on a positive outlook.
The second level of resilience is to get back to a positive outlook. I used to do this every evening by listening to God with my open journal. Specifically, in the Psalms, you have examples of how to be emotionally upset but then return to a place of peace. David cried out in emotional honesty and always ended up reminding himself that God is good. This is the time to process emotions. Start by acknowledging them and naming them. This is painful and it can be tempting to avoid this step. But really, staying in the pain is worse than going through it. Just like a cut on your flesh that needs to be cleaned out, it hurts only for a time and then heals.
For example, if I felt threatened by a terrorist, it was scary, for sure. At night, I would tell God how I felt and then think about what happened. If they kill me, I go to God. If they cause me pain, I know I can live through pain. They can’t really take away my family because I will always have them, now and in the life after. Peace is knowing that the things that are the most important to me — family, relationships, love and connections — are mine forever. Every night when I returned to my journal, I spent time with God and I thought about Him being great, good and kind. He’s king; He is above all. No one can take Him away from me, even if they lock me up. And that gives me a tremendous amount of peace. Peace is knowing that I’m secure. Peace is knowing that I can’t lose. In the end, no one can take away anything from me that matters.
Level two leads you to a point of decision. After acknowledging the pain, I have a choice:
- Open my heart – Return to trusting and vulnerability
- Close my heart – Put up protective walls.
When you put up a wall, the quality of your relationships diminish; they are a little less intimate and a little less trusting. This applies to relationships with God and with people. Will I trust God after a trauma and life disappoints me? Do I hold him responsible for evil in the world? God wasn’t the one pointing rifles at me. I don’t want anything to come between God and me because He is my source of strength and peace.
I believe God is good. Evil that happens in the world doesn’t represent God. But a tragic event can shake me up. I need a practice that gets me back on solid ground. I understand that not all people benefit from journaling or listening to God. For example my husband, Bruce, connects with God when he is around water. Whatever helps you to connect with God, mountains, ocean, birds, trees, music, dance anything, get connected to God. Hiding from God or hiding from pain won’t resolve it. For me, I use silence and meditation to return to a positive outlook on life. This brings my mind back into control.
For me the goal is to be tough minded in a crisis, yet stay tenderhearted. If you decide to put your heart out there again, you can return to the same depth of relationship: same intimacy, same trust, same vulnerability, and same connection. When you return to a deep level of connection, you are home again.
Level Three: You bounce back, can function, take on a positive outlook, and have a healed heart.
The third stage of resilience is when you can function, have a positive outlook and have a healed heart. A huge part of healing is forgiveness, but that is topic for another time. This one took me a long to time to resolve and it’s not easy.
This is the difficult phase of facing yourself. For me, this phase launched me into a time of healing thoughts about myself. I used to feel tarnished by the evil I experienced. I felt like it changed me. Getting back to a positive view of myself was the hardest and took some professional counseling.
I needed a team of people to help me receive emotional, spiritual and physical healing. I went to prayer counselors and therapists. I attended seminars and read books and it took years for my heart to feel healed. Perhaps I will list all the books that I read later in a link. I know it doesn’t happen the same way with each person; the point is, healing comes when you are intentional about it.
Bouncing back from pain, disappointment, shock, or trauma. How do you get back to the place of peace, where you were before? You must go through the pain which is why some people seek professional counselors. You can’t skip it, avoid it, minimize it, or numb it. You must face it. But I think God gives you time. At first you are stunned and feel the sting. God is gentle and patient. I don’t have to get up and smile right away. I can cry out to him and it’s okay. In my honest moments, God is with me in the painful part. He loves me there. God loves me lavishly when I’m hurting and when I’m healing and when I’m healed. He knows, he sees, he feels all that I feel. What I really want you to see is that I allow God to love me when I feel vulnerable. This reaches a deep part in me. Some people get stuck here; they avoid the pain or do things to numb it. This never resolves it and the pain can stay with you for years.
I have experienced many tragedies, and these experiences help me relate to more people. I have had rich life experiences that I don’t regret. This is the life that I was given. I am okay with it. Like a deck of cards, I’m playing the hand that I got. I don’t expect God to make life easy and pain-free. In life, I have my character to prove, adventures to experience and challenges to face.
See more stories of resilience in the next blog.