For the past four years, I have spoken to college freshmen about resilience. I shared my experiences and spoken with them about their experiences, which often shocked me with their raw pain. They had stories of overcoming cancer, abuse, death of a parent, addiction, suicide attempts, and things that made me blink away tears as I read them or heard them tell their tale. I hope the things I said helped.
In other positions as an educator and volunteer I spoke with foster children, incarcerated children, abused children, and children of poverty who had lives of chaos. I listened to their stories, held back my dismay, my anger, and my suggestions. Listening was painful but I hope it helped. I hope I helped. Here, now, the world is hurt, and I cannot leave my home. I cannot help and the desire to be of service is burning me. The world of technology is easy for me but the contacts there do not feel like the exchanges in person. How do you listen online? I think of the things I said to those young people, after listening, after holding back my tears, after offering Kleenex and a hug, and after they looked up expecting guidance.
Resilience begins with acceptance; shit happens. This horrible thing has happened. The thing is horrible. There is no getting around it. I will not soften it or say anything other than “there, there.” It is not fair. Often there is no solution, no action to fix it or even to mitigate the damage. Shit happens and it will happen again in each life. It has happened again and again in my life. At this point usually, the younger person looks at my white hair, the wrinkles around my eyes, my age spots, and my stout but worn body and believes me. I could tell them that it is still happening in my life. Several of my best friends have died this year. My husband who was so strong, who stacked five cords of wood each winter and rode a motorcycle across the country alone, now sleeps all day. I could tell them that the musicians, writers, and artists that I loved are dying. I could tell them that I know now that someday I too will be gone from this earth. But what does that help? I sit with them and listen until they accept that the shit of the universe has fallen into their life. This time it is personal.
Last summer, my husband planted twelve pepper plants. He has never tried to grow anything before. He had three peppers last summer. He took the surviving two plants inside and kept them all winter, nursing them, protecting them from the cats with plastic bags and moving them from place to place for maxim sunlight. Two weeks ago he took them outside. This week there is one tiny beginning pepper on the largest remaining plant. Look to nature for lessons in resilience.
The next step is to lift one’s head and look around. Today amid this terrible plague, the Great Viral Event, nature is blooming. The daffodils have lost their sunshine yellow heads and the bright pink of the azaleas has burst forth. In my unmown yard, the daffodils have taken hold along with the deep purple clumps of wild violets. Nature may seem cruel to continue to cycle her seasons and bud and bloom in this pandemic, but her persistence is unavoidable. For those contemplating leaving life, I say wait, just wait a minute and look around you, wait a day and see what changes. That something will change is inevitable. No matter what anyone does, or thinks, or believes, life will change if you act or not. Change is inevitable. And look, this shit has changed you. What will happen next?
Most of the time, I have been talking with young people and their curiosity, the surge to continue in life usually wins if they can stop and look around. Then the most difficult question is what to do next? What is there to do? This is a new beginning because of the shit. Things will never be the same and there is grief. After the grief, what is there to do?
In each folktale, the hero is minding his own business when change comes. Some shift in the world requires the hero an unusual effort, a challenging choice. He may take the challenge and climb the beanstalk, or face the dragon. She may escape the monster, or outwit the evil queen. The challenge may be avoided, or success may be delayed in the story. Eventually, inevitably the hero must act because even inaction is a choice. Destiny will not be denied. Once one has looked around and chosen to survive, the question is what to do next. We cannot change unless we survive but we will not survive unless we change. The two are intertwined. I would say to them, you have survived and are changed, now what?
This is where listening was most difficult for me in talking to young people. I wanted to guide, to direct. No, to be honest, I wanted to tell them what to do. And I could not. I could talk about resilience all day. I might tell them what choices I had made, and help them find resources for their choices. If they want to travel, where will they go? If the choice was to confront someone or something, how can they be most successful? I can help them find the tools for the next challenge. I could remind them that within them was more strength, more wisdom, more endurance than they could believe at that moment. I know I did. I look back on what I endured and am amazed at my journey. I shared that at the moment that the shit came down, I felt helpless but the minute I moved beyond that moment, I found the magic bean or shoved the witch in the oven, I acted, I choose.
Today, on this beautiful spring day in the month that has many holy days, look at the miracles around you and take heart. Accept the shit, Lift your head. Take an action forward. Life has changed and so have you. As the pandemic continues, all our lives change significantly. I notice the small ways my life has changed. The news reports no accidents on the freeway because few people are traveling. The lines on the traffic map are always green. The weather report is important because it means I can sit on the porch. I live under an airline flight path that is now silent. The house is clean, and meals are always home-cooked. My children call me more often. My mother calls me more often. My neighbors' yards are mown, and gardens are planted. The lives of many are not as peaceful; I am grateful for my life. I am grateful for the workers who continue to go out and risk infection. I am grateful for the service of all workers in hospitals and nursing homes, the first responders, the teachers working online, the grocery store workers, all the workers deemed essential who continue to risk their lives. I grieve for the poor without resources, the abused who are trapped, those who are alone. I hold in the light the ones that are sick and those who are dead. Worldwide, 72,636 dead and 1,312,496 as of 12:35 PM EST. On this bright shining day, I believe that business, as usual, is over. Those who think it is, I think, are fools.
The last step is the one I ponder. What will we do in this new world? My conversation about resilience continues here, in my words. That is my challenge to accept. What is yours? What will you do next?