In these challenging times of climate disruption, political upheaval and dire forecasts for the future, one thing we could all use more of is resilience.
Resilience—it’s our ability to recover quickly from difficult circumstances, to be able to stretch to our limits like a rubber band that bounces back into shape. I wish I could go to the store and buy a box of resilience like I can a box of rubber bands. But resilience is something we have to cultivate rather than acquire. It’s an emotional muscle that needs to be worked. But not in the ways you might think—we don’t build up resilience by toughing things out or by ignoring our feelings, or by leaving the fate of the world in God’s hands alone. We find our resilience when we become a rubber band that stretches and bounces back. That stretch is a willingness to fall apart. The bounce back we do in the loving embrace of gratitude. When we are resilient, we are able to fall apart in the loving embrace of gratitude.
I received a life-altering lesson in resilience over 30 years ago. My dad had just had successful heart bypass surgery. On the night before he was to be released from the hospital, he died suddenly. He was 62 years old. I was 28.
Even though I loved my dad dearly and was devastated by his shocking death, in the weeks that followed, I cried, but I wouldn’t let myself fall into that deep well of sorrow. I couldn’t afford it. As the older daughter, I felt a responsibility to be the one who held it together, to be the rock that Mom could rely on so she could grieve. I’d do mine later.
But later didn’t come. I got caught up in life, a new job, a new boyfriend. By all accounts, I was resilient, moving on after tragedy, picking up the pieces, getting on with things. But being busy didn’t make the grief go away. It simply lay dormant—for a time. First came the anxiety, unexplained. Being held, hearing my boyfriend’s heart beat didn’t comfort me; it only added to my distress. I was afraid I’d hear it stop, just like my Dad’s did. Then came the panic attacks. I’d wake feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath. I’d get so frightened that I’d break down and cry, but just enough to calm me down. The panic attacks continued for months until one night, I felt compelled to drive to the memorial garden at my church.
The most magnificent lightning storm followed me there. No rain. Just light. But I barely noticed. I stood by the low, curved wall where my father’s ashes were buried, staring into the dark. What am I doing here? The message came in a jagged bolt of light. Stop trying to hold it all together. It’s time to grieve.
Message received! I finally surrendered to my overwhelming sorrow of losing my dad. As I grieved in the garden, the rain started to fall, joining my tears with heaven’s.
Up until that stormy evening, I had seen myself as resilient, but I wasn’t even close. I was like an old rubber band that had lost its elasticity. I was becoming brittle, about to break. Because I didn’t give myself permission to fully feel my pain.
Can you relate to this propensity to avoid, ignore, dismiss or minimize your own fear, your own grief, your own anger, your own hopelessness, especially now when every day we learn of something else about the state of the world that breaks our heart, that makes us feel like we can’t do enough to fix things fast enough.
Do you feel it’s a sign of weakness or a waste of time to give any attention to your pain? Are you afraid that if you actually express the grief and fear you feel, you’ll never get out of it, that you’ll be undone by it? Does acknowledging your despair feel like a lack of faith? Does it make you less of a leader or an activist? You’re not alone.
We live in a society that denigrates and suppresses pain-filled emotions. But these feelings are not a problem or a neurosis. It is perfectly normal, healthy, and vitally important that we experience these emotions. They are telling us that something is wrong with something we care deeply about.
When we put our hand too close to a flame, the resulting pain tells us to pull our hand. That physical pain serves a purpose and we’re grateful for it.
Emotional pain works the same way. But if we shut down our emotional pain, if we deny it or suppress it, we are cutting off important feedback we need for survival and for sanity. Suppressing these feelings reduces access to imagination and intuition, it reduces empathy, numbs our ability to react. Unexpressed emotions can make us sick. They also depress our ability to feel any emotions. If we are afraid to feel grief, we are also limiting our ability to feel love. If we suppress fear, we suppress courage. When we block anger, we stifle our passion for justice. When we deny our hopelessness, we hinder new possibilities from arising.
Zen poet Thich Nat Hahn was asked once: “What do we need to do to save the world?” He replied, “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”
And when we do this, hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying and then give those sounds voice, we tap into a remarkable well of energy, insight, creativity and love.
About the same time as my father’s passing over thirty years ago, eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects and my mentor and friend, was holding her first workshops on how to deal with the emotional trauma surrounding the global threat of nuclear annihilation. She experimented with different practices that gave people permission to share their feelings in ritual space. She discovered time and again the healing effects of falling apart. She found that by giving voice to our pain, our grief, our fear, our anger, being heard by others and finding value in these feelings, we experience a shift that brings clarity and inspiration. It’s the fuel we need to make a difference in the world. It’s the wood in the fire that feeds the flames of our love, courage, passion for justice and our creativity. I have witnessed this transformation countless times in workshops I’ve attended and facilitated. It’s quite remarkable.
I encourage you to experience this for yourself. Doing this powerfully healing work in a workshop setting is especially impactful. (For a listing of Work That Reconnects workshops I am offering, click here. To find workshops around the country, click here. To bring this work to your community, email me at email@example.com).
These experiences of intentionally falling apart provide the stretch in our resilience rubber bands. Once we stretch, then we bounce back. This bounce back is fostered within the loving embrace of gratitude—an embrace that comes when we cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
An attitude of gratitude is more than feeling grateful for something kind or nice. It is a decision to live life through the filter of gratitude, to find something to be grateful for in every situation. Even though I lose sleep and shed tears about the impacts of climate change, I am grateful to be facing these challenges with so many caring, dedicated people. I am grateful for the scientists who collect data to inform our decisions. I am grateful for the innovators who tap their creativity to find new ways for us to live. I am grateful for those who keep and share the faith of a loving, inclusive God. I am grateful for the hot water in my shower this morning and for the meals I will share with family and friends.
It feels good to be grateful. But it does so much more than that. And we have the science to prove it. Research shows that people who engage in a gratitude practice report better health, more positive attitudes, reduced physical pain and increased resilience. Gratitude also shifts us from a place of lack into one of abundance. It’s truly powerful medicine. And vital for these difficult times.
One of my favorite writers on gratitude, Brother David Steindl-Rast, describes so beautifully why practicing gratitude is such a gift. He writes, “times that challenge us physically, emotionally and spiritually may make it almost impossible for us to feel grateful. Yet, we can decide to live gratefully, courageously open to life in all its fullness. By living the gratefulness we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratefulness we live.”
How do we cultivate an attitude of gratitude? For those of you involved with faith communities, you have a good start because gratitude is a universal expression in religions and spiritual practices. You can build upon that by finding a daily practice that connects you to the gifts in your life. It can be as simple as keeping a gratitude journal, where you make note of five things you are grateful for each day. Or writing letters of thanks to people who have touched your life. Or making mental notes throughout the day of simple things that make you smile, that nurture and support you, that bring you joy.
On that stormy night in the memorial garden, I learned a life-changing lesson about resilience when I finally allowed myself to fall apart, to grieve deeply for my father. I gave voice to my sadness and fear and found relief. After that night, my anxiety and panic attacks left and never came back. Something else shifted for me that night. I was finally able to see the stunning lightning storm that had accompanied me all evening. I was filled with awe and gratitude for the magnificence of nature and for the precious love of my father.
As we move through these challenging times, we can all use more resilience. My wish for you is to find your own inner rubber band of resilience—your willingness to fall apart within the loving embrace of gratitude. As I learned so many years ago, a heart broken open can hold the whole world, and for that, we can all be grateful.