Resilience

Resilience
March 7, 2004
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Reverend Douglas Taylor

How I got over,
How I got over,
My soul looks back and wonders
How I got over.

Have you ever noticed how there are some people who have heaps of trouble and suffering in their life. (….how I got over) Or maybe you are one of those people who have been seared by the metaphorical forest fires that can burn through a life. (….how I got over) And somehow these folks are OK today, (….my soul looks back and wonders) They have (or you have) transcended the troubles that assail. (….how I got over) And then there are other people you may know or may be, (….how I got over) For whom the suffering compounds upon suffering and there seems no break in the storm. (….how I got over) Folks who make bad choices on top of bad situations, whose lives are littered with loss and hard luck ….My soul looks back and wonders, How I got over

What is the difference between resilient people and those who can’t seem break free from the heartache. What are the qualities of resilience? What are the characteristics we can point to and say ‘This is what you need to get through.’?

How I got over,
How I got over,
My soul looks back and wonders
How I got over.

This gospel hymn I found has a wonderful opening verse. But when the rest of the song does answer the question of how this gospel singer ‘got over’, the answer is Jesus Christ. Somehow, Jesus Christ got this person over his or her troubles. But I want to know a little more detail. How did Jesus help? What did Jesus do that work? I need a broader answer because I don’t have Jesus that way and I don’t think I’m ever going to. So I want a song that will tell me how I’m going to get over. Because my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.

I had a professor when I was in undergrad studying theater who would talk to us not about acting or set design or directing, but about life as an artist. His philosophy was ‘if you know who you are as an artist, everything else will fall in place.’ This professor was a bit of an odd duck, but you grow used to that when you work in theater. There was one lesson in particular that I found and still find of great value. He was talking one day about the role of suffering in the life of an artist and he said it is important to name and own the pain you’ve experienced. This way, for example, when you are getting into character, you could relate to your character’s hurts and suffering by saying “I know that fire, I’ve been through that fire or one very similar.”

That image of talking about the hurts in our lives as fires we have lived though stuck with me when I switched my major from theater to psychology, and when I then went through seminary as I trained to become a minister. This idea that we all have been though fires that have burned us has informed much of how I interact with other people, especially as a minister. And it is an analogy that seems to fit better and better the more I think of it and live with it. Fires are deadly.

I noticed and saved a newspaper article from a 2002 about a fire that “burned through the Bitterroot and Lolo forests that surround the college town of Missoula, Montana,” back in the summer of 2000. The headline read “Montana forests rise anew from grey ash.” It was a nasty little fire, burning so hot in some places that there was not even ashes left, just charred rocky soil. But in the second paragraph of the article the journalist writes, “During the past two summers, while fires have raged in other parts of the country, those seemingly dead forests [in Montana] have had a chance to burst back to life.” The article goes on to describe the amazing plants and flowers that bloom after a fire has been through a forest. Certainly a lot of the process can be chalked up to seeds that float in on the breeze. The left over ash mixes into the soil adding rich nutrients for the new seeds. But that is not the whole story, or even the interesting part. Apparently there are some seeds that sit and wait for a forest fire. There are seeds that will not germinate until they have reached a certain high temperature, and then after that have to take in moisture and go through a cold cycle before they will burst forth in bloom. The seeds can lay dormant for hundreds of years waiting for the next fire.

“Some plants flowered in mass only the first year following the fires; others, only the second. Some species, such as the Bicknell’s geranium – a delicate, stringy plant with tiny, pink flowers – and the dragonhead, will quickly disappear after this second summer, and be unseen until the next fire event. Some perennials, such as fireweed and wild hollyhock, will flower in mass several more years.” (Washington Post, September 16, 2002; pA9)

There is a natural resilience to the world. This morning’s reading about Mt. St. Helens also mentions this. There is a particular lake near that mountain called Spirit Lake that was temporarily killed as a result of the 1980 eruption. The landslide caused by the initial explosion fell into Spirit Lake at roughly 150 mph according to reports. (“Spirit Lake Came Back” by Tom Paulson of the Seattle Post, May 10, 2000.) “The day after the eruption, Spirit Lake was the temperature of a hot bath. It bubbled like a witch’s cauldron from the volcanic gases seeping up from the lake bed. … Nothing was left alive in Spirit Lake. … A month after the eruption, the lake was completely devoid of oxygen.”

Now, as you might guess, Spirit Lake was resilient. But how long did it take? It has been twenty-two years now and the place is once again a beautiful place to visit. One researcher wrote that “it went from a relatively unproductive lake prior to the eruption to a highly productive lake by 1982 and 1983.” And I love this line, “The rapid turnover from a toxic sludge hole to a cornucopia of life surprised scientists and demonstrated how little we know about the complex biology of recovery.”

So, what I get from reading these articles about the resilience of the earth after the volcano or after the fire, is that resilience is an inherent quality. It’s natural. Life moves toward life: it’s a natural process. Life moves toward higher order. We sometimes think entropy is the final word, not so. Life moves toward higher order. In the Jewish and Christian story of creation, God takes chaos and speaks it into order. And looking around it sometimes feels like God said “go,” and creation has been happening ever since. All around me and within me there is birth and rebirth and creation just leaping out. We bounce back. That’s how we are designed! That is how all of creation is designed.

Another newspaper article I noticed and saved from a few years back has the headline “Some victims resilient while others crippled by abuse.” (Washington Post, July 29, 2002, pA14.) The article talked about two individuals who were very similar in many ways: they were both in their fifties, both came from middle-income Catholic families, both had been alter boys, and both were molested by priests in the mid-1960s. Each, however, fared differently. One had dropped out of school, battled alcoholism, attempted suicide, been diagnosed with predatory sexual disorders, spent time in a mental hospital and jail, and is (at the time the article was written) unemployed again. The other worked as an insurance investigator, advocate for the abused, and recently a music teacher. He takes medication for depression and anxiety, but seems to be doing OK. Early in the article the journalist poses the question: “Why are some victims permanently crippled by child sexual abuse while others are able to transcend the trauma?” The question is not answered in the article. I suppose I should not be surprised, after all it is a newspaper article, not a sermon.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who are not demonstrating their natural resilience. I know many people who are spiraling down in their troubles and are not “Leaping with life and creation.” I’m even related to some of these people. I bet you are too. There is not much you can do about the hand you’re dealt, but how you play it is all up to you. I know a man who took years to break out of an unhealthy relationship. He got married again a year later and I see him now having many of the same old problems in this new relationship. I know a couple who have never been able to make it economically, and then when she decides to go back to school in her fifties, she chooses a career with remarkably limited possibilities for making any money. Hard situations on top of poor choices and these people can’t break out of the cycle.

Now, it’s no secret that life is hard. There is always the daily little stuff to deal with. For example, in my family, we’re always stressed about not having enough money or enough time together. Many of you have these or other daily worries. Are you making the right choices for your children or for your aging parents. Maybe your health is deteriorating. Maybe your older brother just lost his job or your best friend is dying of cancer. Life is hard. It always has been. It always will be. But that is just the regular daily stuff. Each of us have been through various emotional or spiritual forest fires in our lives. These events, these traumas threaten to consume us. But somehow, so many of us keep going or even transcend the hardship and really grow. How does it work? Well, as it happens, I did finally get some answers. I took a course in Family Systems Therapy last year and one of the faculty gave a lecture about resilience in which she listed out several qualities of resilient people. That resilience is natural was at the top of her list.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that resilience has a lot to do with attitude. If you look around yourself when things are falling apart in your life and think “this is all my life will ever be,” then it’s not likely you are going to be able to tap into that natural resilient quality within you. Your attitude can block the natural resilience. I remember thinking when was a younger man that I had never been as happy as I had been sad. That is to say, the most extreme and most common feeling for me was sadness. Now this is no longer a true statement for me and I sometimes doubt that it ever was a true statement. I have a lot of joy and happiness in my like now. And I suspect that when I made that assessment back when I was younger, I blocked out the memories of happiness I’d had. I limited my definition of myself and what I was capable of being. This closed off resilience. I didn’t believe it was a possibility. So step one, of course, is the trust me when I tell you that resilience is an inherent part of who you are. There are things over which you have little control. You are not in charge of the environment around you. Situations come up which you can not stop from happening. What you can control is how you respond. People who are resilience have a good sense of what they are in charge of what is out of their control.

Another quality of resilient people is playfulness and imagination. Serious people don’t bounce. Think about the way most of us get when they are faced with a significant trauma in life, we tend to over value the power the event holds. Maya Angelou has a line in her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which struck me when I read it and I’ve never forgotten it. After some particularly tragic event (and if you know the book you know that the tale is fraught with tragic events) she says “That night, the sun set and it never rose again.” Now, Angelou is a resilient person, remarkably resilient. But at that moment life seemed to hold no more possibilities for her beyond her pain. But in her resilience, and as it unfolds through the rest of that and her subsequent autobiographies, her imaginativeness returns as does her playfulness. Having a sense of humor, or better, a sense of life’s absurdity, is important.

Did you know that 90% of all scientific discoveries are mistakes! I can’t back that statistic up, but it sounds good. I recently read somewhere that the invention of the air conditioner and the microwave were accidents, that it was not necessity serving as mother to these inventions, rather it was playful imagination which noticed another possibility in a situation. Here’s another one: a group of scientists set out to win the Nobel Prize for bold research involving the destruction DNA. Unfortunately they failed miserably, no matter what they throw at it. They failed so big, not only could they not destroy any DNA, their tests kept turning up more DNA. Now, another group of scientists took on the same research, and got the same results, but said they were trying to replicate DNA and they got the Nobel prize for it!

Let me offer you another quality of resilient people, were developing a list here for those of you taking notes. Another quality is persistence. Persistent people keep plugging away at the problems in life and thus, tend to accomplish some positive things. If you think about it, the definition of resilience is the system’s or organism’s ability to resistance to change. It is the ability to absorb change and disturbance while maintaining balance. It make’s sense that persistence is a piece of that.

Perhaps you can see some of these connections and can witness to the resilience you have felt and seen around you. Perhaps you are reflecting on your family, on your work environment, or on your church community. Perhaps you are thinking about yourself or a friend or family member you care about. Perhaps you are thinking of one of these as an example of resilience or the lack there of. In the latter cases, what can you do about it? You can try to bring in a little persistence and playfulness, and some faith in our natural ability to rise above the hurt and trauma, some faith that you will get over.

In a world without end,
May it be so.