Plasticity – Elasticity – and Amazing Resiliency!

In the time I’ve written this blog, 2 more names have surfaced in the tsunami of Hollywood sexual assault stories.  #MeToo on steroids now – all around us.  It is as if you are assumed guilty – until proven innocent. 
So many other hard things in the world – harassment – or bad things – descending upon us. How do we survive – those who do?  Press conferences – lawsuits – therapy? All tools to use to get a sense of vindication – or a way to shout ‘no more’ – but does all that do anything to heal – or are we “thrown helplessly like puppets” from one behavioral and emotional extreme to the other – perhaps with a few bucks in our pocket, if we’re lucky….perhaps with nothing but the experience festering into our soul.
Do we have a choice?  Are we blades of grass swinging this way and that, but always returning to a more or less ramrod straight position?  Or are we skinny twigs – ready to snap at the slightest insult?
If we’re blades of grass – how fortunate are we?  If we’re parents, what can we do to help our children?  We won’t always be there…protecting them, getting between them and harm in all the lonely places they must walk.
How do we teach resiliency?  How do we teach how to sway back and forth – take the time – and return to ramrod straight?  If we learn how to do this it will be a lifelong skill – a lifelong art – that will do them well. I believe years ago that we taught each other more deeply how to do that.  Have we lost that basic core? Maybe it starts with expecting that we will all be ok – there, there, it will.  And minute after minute – quite deliberately – quite mindfully – one day soon – it will be. We may be dented and damaged, or ever so more cautious – but we are back and strong and moving forward.
 
Here is an article that will help you be that resilient self – and will give you some resources to learn how to help others become that, too.

Reprinted here:

Happiness isn’t a country.

You don’t get there and stay. It’s a fleeting space, a feeling that comes and goes, so focusing on being happy is just a distraction, according to some psychologists. Better to develop resilience, which is a characteristic that you can cultivate to improve the quality of your life in any circumstances.Resilience is essentially emotional elasticity, the ability to manage changes and difficulties. It’s the ability to deal with life’s vicissitudes with some grace, not being derailed by every failure, mistake, or shift in circumstances. The skill is worth learning, says psychologist Anna Rowley—who counsels executives at corporations like Microsoft on cultivating existential “mastery”—because emotional flexibility is exceptionally handy in our rapidly-changing world. Resilience provides you with a personal foundation of strength and sense of safety.

Rowley doesn’t talk about happiness at all. She argues that Americans are culturally obsessed with feeling good when, instead, we should be perfecting perception, our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Rather than dealing with difficulties, Rowley says, people tend to “cope ugly.” We numb ourselves with food, drink, drugs, stuff, sex, or the internet, hoping not to feel anything at all if we can’t just feel happy.

Those efforts to hide from suffering are futile, Rowley says. We learn little from hiding. But by engaging with negative emotions, and learning to see they’re fleeting, we can get better at dealing generally. And every feeling or situation we manage wisely builds on our resilience skills. “Resilience is like a super coping mechanism,” Rowley told Quartz. “It protects against stress in any situation.”

Stretch, don’t bounce.

Coping sounds kind of dull compared to happiness but failing to do so can lead to depression. According to writer and clinical psychiatrist Peter Kramer, emotional resilience ensures mental health, and is the opposite of depression. “Depression is fragility, brittleness, lack of resilience, a failure to heal,” Kramer writes in his 2005 book Against Depression.

Developing resilience won’t bring happiness but it can help you avoid depression and teach you to heal yourself when you do suffer. Learning to deal will improve your quality of life, says Rowley, yet to get good at it demands facing and engaging the very thing we seek to avoid, most notably our own bad feelings.

According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience…means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.” Rowley differs slightly on this. She argues that “bouncing back” is just an aspect of this skill and not the one that comes first. It would be better, she says, if we learned how to gently and continually stretch ourselves instead of bouncing around. “Rebounding is important but you can’t learn from experience if you hurry,” the psychologist argues.

“Rebound alone takes the personal accountability out of situations and leaves you with no locus of control. What we really need is emotional literacy, to be able to look at our actions and recognize the role of choice in events.”

You are not what you feel

The late Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and writer, spent half a century studying the minds of people with chronic brain diseases, patients who operated at neurological extremes—some operated super fast, some very slow, some were deeply depressed, others were manic, and some patients alternated between extreme states. In his last just-released book, The River of Consciousness, Sacks refers to resilience as the “middle ground” that gives people mental control and stability. Without it, he notes, patients are “thrown helplessly like puppets” from one behavioral and emotional extreme to the other.

Sacks’ patients suffered from neurological deficits that made it impossible for them to regulate themselves and develop resilience naturally. Most people, however, do have what it takes. If you’ve made it this far in life, you’ve already displayed amazing resilience, and Rowley says you can get better at it.

You don’t have a choice about getting sick or getting laid off from a job, say. But you do have a choice about how you respond to what happens emotionally, and the response will influence how far you fall, how fast you get back on your feet, and what you yield from your difficult experience. To practice responding appropriately, you must get to know yourself emotionally, says Rowley.

You do it by paying attention. Developing a habit of attentiveness is fundamental to building resilience. You can practice with a deceptively simple exercise that the psychologist uses herself and with clients: On the way to work, say, in your car, name three to five things you see, sense, and hear, Rowley suggests. For example, you see traffic is crawling, the sun is climbing in the sky, and that the car in from of you is blue. You sense a chill in the air, that your fingertips are cold against the steering wheel, and that the driver behind you is impatient as he inches closer to your bumper. You hear the hum of traffic on surrounding freeways, angry honking of horns, and the squawking of birds flying overhead.

Making simple mental lists like this might seem silly at first. Who cares about the birds? You’ve got important worries!

But Rowley says the lists teach you simple perceptual shifts from internal to external realities, and help you to see clearly in the moment. She practices the exercise herself as well, every day. When you practice moving between your inner self and the outer world, you stop being a prisoner to emotions and are able to simply note what is, explains Rowley. This helps you make better, fact-based decisions.

No one thing you do today will guarantee your flourishing in the future, warns Rowley. Developing the skill of resilience, however, means you don’t have to fear the failures, mistakes, and changes that lie ahead for all. The confidence that comes from knowing you can manage tough circumstances, makes difficult situations easier to handle, and that is certainly happy news.

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Old enough to remember…

I wrote to the author of this hidden little piece, below, in today’s New York Times: “Thank you for sharing this – I think back to all the Sunday rides we took as a family – it was my mother who was the adventurer – spontaneously calling out – turn here! – to my dad, who just did whatever she told him to. And I giggled at the adventure – for no more cost than an ice cream if we found a place, or some french fries, maybe. Sometimes, summer tomatoes from a fruit and vegetable stand. No worries about the price of gas.

I was much too structured with my children – wish I had transferred the carefree spontaneity of my mom (but I suppose there’s still time)…

My treat on my birthday – which today is – is to spend most of the day with my all-too-grownup girls – I hope for giggles and memories – less worry and fret – less planning and structure – as our world’s concerns have descend upon them like a heavy cloak.  I can no longer protect – distract – cocoon them – with arts and crafts, or food, or entertainment. I suppose there were worldly concerns in my childhood, back on those dusty Sunday road trips – but I don’t remember what they were.

This world’s dark and ominous cloud needs aggressive bands of sunlight – people who can drag us out with inconsequential moments of wonder.

Maybe that’s my role now.  I’ve done far too much planning and prodding and pulling them along. So I’ll go back to the moments … some of which have already been forgotten.  “Do you remember that? When we went to Maine, just the three of us? When we went to the beach in our clothes because we didn’t bring suits?”  – “No, not really…” Sigh…

Maybe they are not “old enough” yet – to remember. Anyone near my age will know what I mean…

I encourage them to write, to journal, to blog, to keep boxes of memories…because one day something will come back to them…and they’ll giggle and pause – and maybe, when it is their time they will take their little ones spontaneously to Maine – or to the Cape – without a reservation, with no bags packed.  Or, they could go on a Sunday drive – and shout out, “turn here”!

Thanks to author Christina Baker Kline…

“At the steering wheel my father consults his large paper map, turning it this way and that, squinting at the small blue lines that squiggle through tiny Maine coastal towns. He’s heard that the author E.B. White’s house is somewhere around here, and he’s determined to find it.

My mother, next to him in the passenger seat of our rusty gold station wagon with my baby sister on her lap, raises her eyebrows at my other two sisters and me, free-ranging in the second row. It’s the early 70s, and seatbelts haven’t caught on yet. We gaze back at her, knowing that once Dad gets an idea into his head, it’s almost impossible to stop him. We range in age from 1 to 10 (I’m the oldest), and all of us are literally and figuratively along for the ride. Besides, we’re excited at the prospect of meeting this author we already feel we know. We’ve been lulled to sleep every night by the soft cadence of my dad’s Southern accent as he reads us stories about a wise spider and a hapless pig, a resourceful mouse and a mute swan.

Dad pulls off the road into the dusty parking lot of a country store with a lone gas pump, and gets out of the car. We hear him chatting with the attendant through the open window. “Sure is nice around here.”

The guy shrugs.

My sisters and I glance at each other. Rural Mainers tend to be stranger-wary and small-talk averse. But as usual, Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “You lived here long?”

“Ayuh.” Amazingly, before long, and with only a little coaxing, the attendant is telling Dad about his grandkids and his lobster boat and pointing off into the distance, giving him the intel he’s come for. “Mr. White lives right over that hill there. Privet hedge in front. Can’t miss it.”

Back on the road, my sister Cynthia ventures, “Isn’t it rude to show up on someone’s doorstep without asking?”

Dad grins and winks at us in the rear view mirror. “He’ll be flattered.”

We pull up to the farmhouse to find a courtly white-haired man trimming the hedge with a set of clippers. “It’s him!” Dad whispers. He rolls down his window and leans out. “Hello, good sir!” The man seems a little nonplussed. “I have a car full of young readers here who’d give anything to meet their favorite author. A word from you, and they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives.” What choice does the poor man have? Within a few minutes, the famously reclusive E.B. White is demonstrating to a cluster of little girls in bathing suits that when you crush pine needles between your fingers and hold it to your nose, the smell is as strong as patchouli. And Dad is right — we never will forget it.

The writer E.B. White passed along an appreciation for the scent of crushed pine needles to the author and her sisters when they arrived at his house unannounced in August 1973. Credit Courtesy of the Baker family.

My childhood was rife with moments like this. Dad was always going out on a limb, befriending people who didn’t necessarily seem to want new friends, trespassing on private property, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in quest of adventure. His philosophy was that you don’t need money or plans, only a willingness to be present in the moment and to go where inspiration takes you. If you don’t, you’ll miss the entire point of being alive.

Raised dirt poor in rural Georgia by a mill worker mother and a father who often went to the bar rather than home after work, Dad learned early on that his quickest route up the social ladder was through charm and smarts. He got himself to college — the first in his family — on a football scholarship, then used seminary to springboard to a doctorate in a foreign land.

As a young academic in the ‘60s, he grew to reject traditional values and had scant respect for the social codes of privilege. At parties, he could often be found talking to the bartender or a 95-year-old Irish grandmother in the kitchen rather than the hosts. A Southerner through and through, even after moving to Maine, he was constitutionally incapable of walking down a street in New York without stopping to chat with doormen, bodega owners and homeless people. He never met a taxi driver whose story he didn’t want to know. Dad’s unorthodox and sometimes embarrassing friendliness got him, and us, into trouble now and then. Some people didn’t take kindly to probing questions. Others found his puppy-dog openness suspect or unsophisticated. But his innate, bottomless curiosity about the world also taught his four daughters to be open to new experiences and comfortable with improvisation. Even now, in his late 70s, he lives each day with a kind of purposeful recklessness, asking provocative questions and seeking new experiences in the belief that he can break through to something better, more meaningful, more satisfying.

Though my parents had little money, they took us on adventures all over the world. Driving through Scotland in a rainstorm, we pulled over to the side of the road and rode the wild ponies grazing by the fence. We coaxed a stray lamb over to our rented R.V. to feed it. One year my father switched houses, cars, teaching jobs, committees and pets with a professor in Melbourne, Australia, sight unseen. Another year our family of six flew to Crete without a plan; at the airport Dad bought a map and started asking random strangers, with the help of a woefully inadequate Greek phrase book: “What should we do?” “Where should we stay?”

This spontaneity meant that we missed flights, lost luggage, drove on perilous roads late at night, stayed in some cold-water hovels, and sometimes went hungry. But it also yielded beautiful surprises: an undiscovered beach, a fisherman’s hut with a breathtaking view, a hillside breakfast of goats’ milk yogurt and fresh honey that I still remember 35 years later. It led to his daughters’ sense of the world not as a huge frightening place but as a wonderland ripe for discovery.

The Maine farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting “Christina’s World” was not yet a museum or even open to the public when my father got it into his head — soon after our ambush of E.B. White — to take a family field trip there. Following his usual routine, he pulled into the small village of Cushing and asked a local how to find the Olson house. When we arrived (no doubt trespassing), we picnicked in the field where the woman in the pink dress in the painting had lain. Looking up at that weathered gray house on the hill, and hearing the story of the woman with my name who spent her lifetime there, I was entranced. Years later, I drew on that experience to tell my own story of the painting in my new book.

There’s no doubt that my dad’s endless curiosity has shaped who I am. I often find myself — to my own kids’ embarrassment — chatting with strangers in lines, accepting spontaneous invitations, and seeking out-of-the-way adventures.

I think the most important thing I learned from my dad is that when you go out on a limb there’s a risk it will break, but you’ll get a whole new perspective on the world. And if you’re really lucky, it can feel like flying. ‘

“I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”

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“Peter,” she said, faltering, “are you expecting me to fly away with you?”

“Of course; that is why I have come.” He added a little sternly, “Have you forgotten that this is spring cleaning time?”

[Wendy] knew it was useless to say that he had let many spring cleaning times pass.

“I can’t come,” she said apologetically, “I have forgotten how to fly.”

“I’ll soon teach you again.”

“O Peter, don’t waste the fairy dust on me.”

She had risen; and now at last a fear assailed him. “What is it?” he cried, shrinking.

“I will turn up the light,” she said, “and then you can see for yourself.”

“What is it?” he cried again.

She had to tell him.

“I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”

“You promised not to!”

“I couldn’t help it.”

Today I spent some time with a friend from high school.  He and I share about 35 years of not being friends – the years between high school and a few years ago, when, through the magic of Facebook, one of our first reunions happened. We’ve caught up with each other.  Many of us now peruse our Facebook pages – like opening a “this is your life” book, we click on photos and watch the years unfold.

Whoosh! I see a blond haired lad with an impish grin and I see my friend, but then I realize – silly – that’s not him –  it’s his son.

I suppose I’ve been feeling a bit like Wendy did lately.  Facebook has had a way of condensing my life.

A few weeks ago, my friend, Mike, was chatting (on Facebook, of course) about helping his sister start a food truck business, resurrecting his old family recipes from his family’s iconic community restaurant.  I knew that my artist clients were holding an exhibit and wanted to have some food options for their patrons, so I suggested that he set up outside the building.  The building, an old Armory, is right next to “our” high school.  So on this crisp fall day, with a chill in the air, we found ourselves sitting together at a little picnic table area he had set up, right in the shadow of our high school.

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Whoosh! He’s a football player.  With a golden floppy head of hair, a swagger and a drawling, Texan style voice. He’s a little bit of a trouble maker, but then he’d flash his white-toothed, full faced smile. His eyes would smile, too, with a sparkly twinkle, just like an animated commercial.

He has a floppy head of grey hair, but the sparkle and smile are fully intact.  His impishness, too.  His age shows most notably in his manners.  He is extremely polite and helpful to older people, very respectful, and even moreso with children.  His second career is a prison guard.  Somehow that work has made him, what, gentle?  A gentle, impish, funny, handsome man.

We talk about the little catch in our step – me with my hip – he with his back.  We sit at the picnic table and talk about meatballs and sauce and memories of the city we grew up in.  We sit in the shadow of our high school, where, some 40 plus years ago we graduated and parted company for most of those years.  Many of us who have re-met on Facebook know we will always be friends, now.  We will share the joys of children’s marriages and grandchildren being born.  We will share the sorrows of deaths that are already beginning to happen.

What made this so surreal?  Sitting close and looking squarely at each other?  The shadow of our youth towering over us now?  Being in the city we grew up in and all the things that used to be somewhere? Talking about the boarded up Armory with pigeons siting in the broken windows? Reminiscing about family recipes? I started to think about my mother’s sauce and how Portuguese linguicia was her secret ingredient and how could I have forgotten until this very moment of recollection.

Whoosh! That whirling tornado funnel of thoughts again – and a snippet of my life – graduating, college, an accident, jobs, marriage, divorce, babies, deaths, career changes and challenges, children growing up and adult jobs, retirement planning, reconstructive surgery talk…and then – whoosh – I’m back, sitting at the picnic table.

A week ago both my children were hired for their “dream jobs” – within two days of each other.  And they even have binders of benefit plans for me to look at. So I tell them – grab all that matchy pension stuff – buy that long term care policy.  Trust me.  I know they don’t know about a lot of things that I know too much about.

Whoosh! I see them heading to age 30 and I have the panic about their lives that I have about my own.  You have to plan. You have to do it right.  If you do it better than me your life will be better than mine is now.  Listen.  Never mind. Just trust me. Trust me.

There’s a nip in the air.  The leaves are falling.  Soon winter will come.

One day there will be gentlemen for my daughters’ hands. And every spring it will be cleaning time again. And may there be grandchildren to hear about high school. And football players with golden hair and twinkling eyes.  And fairy dust and Neverland. And thus it will go on.

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” Peter Pan

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