I’ve gotten more interested in the idea of resilience over these past months. I’ve read a handful of newish books on the topic, and by far my favorite has been Building Resilience: When There’s No Going Back to the Way Things Were by Alice Updike Scannell.
Where It Came From
Alice Scannell was an Episcopal priest, gerontologist, and researcher. She became very interested in why some people are able to move to a new phase of flourishing after some life-altering event, and why others aren’t. After decades of work and research, she wrote this book about “radical resilience — the kind of resilience we need, not to bounce back from, but to work through the adversities that change our lives, the adversities that deliver a new reality in which we must make a new life.” (p xvi)
What You’ll Find In It
This small book delivers concrete information about resilience skills — things we can practice in our lives in order to have greater resilience to what has been, what is, or what will come. She describes a skill or two in each chapter, offering real-life stories about people using the skill (or not) and sometimes comparing and contrasting different experiences. She provides a list of ways to practice the skill at the end of each chapter, and then closes with a question-and-answer style review of each chapter’s material.
The 5 Conditions
Rev. Dr. Scannell found through her research that there are five attitudes or attributes that foster radical resilience:
- Self-Awareness. The ability “to face the truths (both positive and negative) about ourselves and see ourselves as others see us. (p 7)
- Supportive Relationships. Having people in our lives we can talk to, people we are willing to ask for help and support. These may not be “friends” or “family.” They may be group members, therapists, clergy or others as well.
- Openness. Being able to hear the truth from those we trust. And being able to tell the truth–even the ugly, scary truth–of our own stories to someone we trust.
- Reflection. Learning from our experiences by naming our emotions, making connections with other similar experiences, and working to find what the experience has to teach us.
- Humor. The ability to not take ourselves too seriously is so helpful for healing and resilience.
The 10 Skills
Skills we can build to become more radically resilient include: Mindfulness, Courage, Perseverance, Flexibility, Reframing, Creativity, Realistic optimism, Hope, Physical Activity, and Spirituality.
I have a complicated relationship with mindfulness. It likely goes back to a mindfulness meal presented to me as a teen where we awkwardly sat around a table with no talking, no music, and only one adult telling us to hold a single bite of food in our mouth over and over. Urg.
On the other hand, I love using many of the mindfulness practices that Scannell offers. Things like repeating a metta, or loving-kindness prayer. Or simple breathing exercises with or without a mantra.
Mindfulness, at its most basic, is simply paying attention. Whatever you do to get yourself out of your head, out of the past, out of the future, and back to right here-and-now, that is your mindfulness practice.
And being good friends with a few mindfulness practices will help you on your way to radical resiliency.
Unfortunately, we only have the change to practice courage in difficult circumstances. We never get to rely on our courage when we’re comfortable and strong and calm. The author reminds us that “The courage to be vulnerable makes us willing to try anything that will get us back to living with meaning and purpose in our lives.” (p 28)
One way Scannell suggests we practice courage is by using strategies from Nonviolent Communication methods where we share our feelings and needs, and make a request that will meet those needs. For many people, stating our needs clearly and making a request to meet our needs is an act of courage.
Perseverance is something most of us can practice almost daily. I based my first sabbatical around a 100 Day Gong. I committed to doing a single tai chi move for 100 days in a row. If I skipped a day, I had to start counting from 1 the next day.
If you don’t have anything in your life requiring practicing perseverance, you can create your own 100 Day Gong, or make a goal of practicing Spanish daily for 6 months with Duolingo, or commit to a daily Lenten practice.
Flexibility is crucial for radical resilience. If we are in a place we must practice radical resilience, we are already in a place where we can never go back to the way it was. We must flex and learn to live in fullness differently than we had before.
Practices of “yes, and…” thinking and working on holding opposites are both great ways to practice flexibility.
I used the improv technique of “yes, and…” while visiting my mother in the nursing home when she was in late stage dementia. It made visits less stressful for both of us. Mom believed she was a confederate POW? Yes and, mom, how are they treating you? Mom thought she was stuck at a bus station? Yes and, mom, look over there at that woman in blue. She will help you. She will get you a meal and a place to sit until I get there.
Holding Opposites is a skill I’ve been practicing through Yoga Nidra. In this fabulous “nap yoga,” the guided meditation will sometimes have us practice feeling both warm and cool, both light and heavy, etc.
Reframing helps us take a step back and see things from a different vantage point. When we get stuck in a spiral of awfulness, we can pull back, take a breath, and focus on another aspect of our circumstance.
Marilee Adams developed “Question Thinking” which helps people get out of a “judger mindset” and move into a “learner mindset.”
Reframing is especially helpful for breaking through assumptions about what we can or can’t do, or the way things must be. I’ll never be 160 pounds. But that doesn’t mean I’ll never be healthy. Instead, I focus on other health markers like blood tests, activity level, etc.
Creativity is a form of agility. Creativity breaks us out of The One Right Way and invites us to playfully imagine many possible ways. Creativity helps us from holding on too tightly to the old, comfortable way.
Fostering our creativity can be as simple as listening to music. For more of a challenge, pick two random objects and find something that connects them. Or doodle, or make a new recipe, or buy some flowers to arrange.
I love Scannell’s understanding of realistic optimism: “realistic optimism is a combination of optimism, which is thinking from a positive perspective, and pessimism, which is thinking from a negative perspective… When we engage both optimism and pessimism in our response to adversity, we’re building realistic optimism.” (p. 84)
In the past, I have been quite an optimist. Since March 2020, I have found a significant pessimism slipping into my life. And I’ve been shocked that it’s not such a bad thing. As I hold my pessimism lightly, I am also able to hold my optimism more lightly as well. Realistic optimism keeps us from overestimating what is possible — yet it supports our hope that things can be better.
“Hope adds action to realistic optimism.” (p 85) The type of hope that the author points to is one described by C. R. Snyder. For Snyder, action is a crucial part of a 3-step process of hope.
- Set a goal
- Imagine ways to meet the goal
- Take specific steps towards that goal
How can you add this sort of active hope into your own life?
Our bodies, minds and spirits are intertwined in wonderful and unimaginable ways. We know both from numerous studies, and from our own experience, that physical activity helps us cope with difficult situations. It reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, it slows mental decline, and so much more. And yet, we often find it so hard to do. Scannell shares five reasons it may be difficult to commit to physical activity, and then offers a number of inspiring stories about folks in a wide variety of circumstances who have found ways to bring physical activity into their lives.
Scannell clarifies that not all spirituality is supportive of radical resilience. (And, in fact, I will add that some spirituality — or more correctly some forms of religion — are damaging and deeply counter resilience.) “The kind of spirituality that serves as a radical resilience skill respects the dignity of every human being; understands that all beings, the environment, and the universe are interconnected; views the Higher Power as loving; and holds honesty, self-awareness, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, openness, acceptance, and healing as core values.” (p 113).
Tending to our own spirituality, our own depth and growth and connection to something bigger than ourselves, builds a storehouse of resources for when we ourselves have nothing else to give.
Building a Resilient Life
Think about the 5 Conditions and the 10 Skills for building radial resiliency. Which ones come to you most easily? Which one might you be ready to work on? How can you see some of these conditions and skills supporting resiliency in your own life or others?
If you have only one book on resilience, this is the one I recommend.