Resilience has become a watchword of our pandemic year and beyond.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Edmundson, an author and professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that Ralph Waldo Emerson, a giant of poetic letters, is an excellent example of resilience. Emerson, like so many of that era, knew loss up close and personally. His wife died at 19, and his eldest son died at age five.
“Life only avails not the having lived,” wrote Emerson in his essay, “Self-Reliance.” “Power ceases in the instant of repose, it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.”
Edmundson himself writes, channeling Emerson, “Don’t make yourself a patient, don’t plump the mattress or pickle yourself in Cabernet. Instead, make life more demanding than it has been. Be tougher on yourself; fill your mind with your tasks and go after them, hard. When we’re down, we need to get up and fight as best we can—not tomorrow, but now.”
There is much to unpack in Emerson's approach. For many, when stricken with grief, the solution is to persevere in life's journey and with life's calling. Some individuals, as we saw during our past year, have done this swimmingly. They have persisted despite tragedy. Others, perhaps the majority, need time to reflect, recharge and yes, mourn.
Perseverance without acknowledgment of suffering may be short-sighted. You may sublimate your emotions, and ultimately yourself, with this approach. Doing so may hinder your ability to achieve better results.
Coping with loss
So many great artists, like Emerson, suffered significant loss. Great leaders, too, notably Theodore Roosevelt, suffered a loss. Like Emerson, TR lost his first wife. All of them channeled their feelings, or in our common parlance, "processed" the loss and integrated it into their lives. They emerged stronger for it, and their work attests to that fact.
Resilience is the ability to come back from defeat. To rise again, but as I have learned in this past year, it's also the ability to meet the challenges of a transformed world. The world of January 2020 is no more; our duty is to create a "new normal" that embodies the best of what we had with the best of what we have learned. We will need resilience to do so.
Over the past year, I have conducted over 100 interviews with women and men from different walks of life. One of them, Garrett Tennant, a Royal Marine, spoke about resilience can be learned through training. What special forces troops do is subject themselves to danger in training and, in the process, learn to adapt by monitoring their reactions and their behaviors so when they are in a combat situation, they know how to act. The fear does not dissipate; it is managed.
Others I interviewed told me how they, as business leaders imbued their organizations with resilience. They did it through their example. They put themselves out front, sharing their thoughts about the road ahead. They counseled individuals and also sought help themselves when necessary. Such leaders set an example that adversity is real, but so is our ability to manage it.
Nowhere is resilience more critical than in modern healthcare. The past year saw practitioners—physicians, nurses, aides—stressed to the max when dealing with the overload of Covid-19 patients. A few tragically broke under the weight of the burden. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority did not, but they did not emerge unscathed. It will take years of processing the stress of the pandemic before they are entirely whole.
Resilience is also a physical reaction to stimuli. As my colleague, Dr. Sharon Melnick, a clinical psychologist, teaches, we need to learn the practice of self-regulation. We cannot always be on; sometimes, we need to be off. Failure to do so leads to burnout.
Resilience need not be a solo enterprise. Some, like Emerson, can muscle through it, but most of us need to decompress, talk to colleagues and seek professional help to regain our equilibrium. We do heal ourselves, but doing so need not be in isolation.
Resilience, some say, is like a muscle. You can build it up, but if you don’t use it, it will atrophy. Never have we had a time when resilience is more necessary. So let’s use it.