As a parent, I watch my daughter come to terms with what it means to deal with threats outside of our control that have such an immense impact on how she navigates the world.
But, we don’t have to be parents to consider this impact.
As individuals, we all try to make sense of adversity and often question both internally and externally to surmount the challenges life throws our way. I reflect on those who have endured great hardships in their lives and whilst the odds were stacked against them, they somehow were able to harness the power of the dragon and ride through great adversity.
If you ignore the dragon, it will eat you.
If you try and confront the dragon, it will over power you.
If you ride the dragon, you will take advantage of its might and power. ~ Chinese Proverb
The human spirit is often defined as, “the spiritual and mental part of humanity.” And resilience is being faced with extreme situations for which we cannot truly ever be prepared. But, what are these special qualities within the human spirit that can be drawn upon to help us ride these dragons? How do we withstand such life-threatening illnesses, death of loved ones, mental illness that impacts ourselves or those we care for, loss of friendships and other significant relationships, natural disasters, and so many other adverse events?
Here are five dimensions of the human spirit, which can ground and protect us. They may even be the very aspects we need in order to have a resilient human spirit:
- An open and flexible mindset: Sometimes when we face challenging times, we want to plan every detail of how we are going to manage it and get through this discomforting time. Once we latch on to a few steps, we close down options for ourselves and we can feel really unsettled when plans don’t work out. We often overplan, because we are feeling that there is a threat that will cause us a great deal of pain and might even destroy us. The most resilient people are able to adapt and adjust and show great flexibility regardless of what life throws their way. This is not suggesting that they don’t feel distressed or fearful. It’s just that they seem to be able to think on their feet and go with the flow of reality as it arrives. We can have plans. That isn’t a bad thing, but we certainly need to adjust our plans to be more creative in how we get through unpredictable times. What I have learnt in tough times is that I don’t have to plan every last detail to get myself through a difficult time. Sometimes life just works its own kind of magic. But I need to let go a little, trust a little, and allow it to do this.
- Not taking it personally: The meaning we ascribe to events, ourselves, and others can determine how we cope with tough times or increase our own suffering. As the saying goes, “sh*t happens” and it happens to everyone. Resilient individuals don’t think that the Universe is out to get them. They don’t feel singled out or find themselves saying “it’s so unfair” or “why me.” They seem to have the ability to accept that life is both joyful and sorrowful and that bad things even happen to good people. That this is what life is serving and the way they respond to it will determine if they increase their own suffering or understand that its part of a process to go through. When we are able to find a helpful way to rethink our own adversity, we stop demanding that the circumstances have to change for us to feel better. It’s not personal. It is just life and its cycles.
- A sense of hope: What would happen if we stopped hoping for better? We would just give up! To have hope is to want an outcome that will be better for us and for those we love or maybe even society in general. When we have hope we can make the current tough times more bearable. When we have hope of a better outcome we have motivation to take the steps we need to move toward that better outcome. It provides a future vision that we can work toward so we don’t feel stuck and paralyzed by the current situation. It’s a psychological metaphor that when we see light at the end of the tunnel, it allows us to keep moving forward in order to end up in a better place. Resilient people don’t focus a lot on the tragedy of the situation; they look for a way out.
- A focus on reality: Sometimes we spend a lot of our time worrying endlessly about the impact of our current adversity on the future. What would happen if we just accepted reality for what it was and deal with that?It might reduce a lot of anxiety over things we simply cannot control. It might also free up space to gain a different perspective on the situation at hand and how it is currently impacting our present situation. In times of trouble we can only deal with the facts as they are. That in itself can be more than enough to outline what we need to do at a practical level to address the situation. I often recite the Serenity Prayer when life isn’t as pleasant as I would like it to be. “[God,] grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” by Reinhold Niebuhr. Somehow this helps me ground myself in the facts of reality and increases my personal capacity to direct my energy to things within my control that I can impact some degree of change to. If I spend too much time investing myself in things I cannot control, I lose the focus and become easily overwhelmed and feel defeated.
- Built-in protection from trauma: Sometimes we are not ready to remember all the heavy details of bad things that happen to us in life. Mother Nature seems to have a built-in protective system to help us get through tough times. If we were to experience the full impact of the trauma we might lose our courage and might give up completely. We have a built-in protection to not have to deal with more than we can currently bear until we are better equipped to cope. We need to utilize this inner resource as it is natures way of providing us with protection to get through tough times.
“I have found that the human spirit is much more resilient than I had imagined. I have found that friends appear, unasked and undemanding, just when they are needed most—the love of friends is incredibly reaffirming.” ~ Bill, prostate cancer survivor, from What Helped Get Me Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope
In times like the ones we are currently facing with great uncertainty, it is important to remember that the human spirit has a particular power to rise above great adversities. Maybe you can recall a person who you consider resilient or just has a certain something about them that allows them to move through adversity to triumph.
Remember that tough times are part of the human experience. None of us are exempt from them, but if we can harness these five inner dimensions we can ride the dragon of life. We can use its might and its power to push forward.
Let us not get stuck. Let us find our way forward no matter how dark our troubled times look.
We might not always have everything happen like we would like it to. We might grieve a lot and lose a lot too. But resilience of the human spirit is about never giving up. It’s about always moving forward with hope and it’s about growing to be better humans who don’t only consider ourselves but can use our suffering to be of benefit to others.
Resilience is born out of adversity. We can develop these dimensions of the human spirit as we are given the very adverse circumstance needed to flex our resilient muscles. When we do, we have these qualities for the next adversity and can remind ourselves that we can get through it too.