“The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing but in rising every time we fall” Nelson Mandela
As I’m sure many parents do, I sometimes think about the legacy I’d like to leave my children. On reflection, perhaps one of the reasons I started writing “The Lettuce Patch” was to do just that; to capture and share with them my life lessons and observations.
In the immortal words of Forrest Gump “life is like a box of chocolates” or perhaps, to improve the analogy, like Jelly Belly’s Beanboozled Jelly Beans. Every now and again we get a rotten egg, vomit or canned dog food flavoured jelly bean.
Sailing is a big part of Island life. Last summer we decided that it was time for our 11 year old to venture out onto the water and enrolled him on a week-long sailing course. On his second day he capsized and was pinned under the water by the mast for a few seconds; probably an eternity to him. Despite our comforting and reassuring words, for the next few nights he sobbed himself to sleep, convinced that he was going to die. Although clearly terrified, he insisted that he’d carry on with the course. On the last day he was awarded his sailing qualifications, but announced that he never wanted to set foot in a Laser Picot again.
His resilience was stunning. We were proud parents, with a son who was, quite understandably, very proud of himself.
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice” (Bob Marley)
Our brains are still wired in the same way as those of our ancient ancestors. When we’re faced with something new, unknown and scary our “fight or flight” response kicks in. Running away or ignoring it is often the easiest option. Whilst that might buy us some time, the next time we’re faced with a similar challenge (and there will undoubtedly be a next time), it will be just as terrifying. We’ll have also given it enough space and time in our imaginations to grow into an even bigger, scarier monster.
Instead of running away or when running away simply isn’t an option, we can choose to stay and fight. For such occasions, resilience is something we need to have hanging, battle-ready, in our personal armoury.
But personal resilience is not just head and body armour, there to take the impact of the challenges being hurled at us. It’s so much more than that. It’s like the warm, spring sun on the cold, damp earth; it generates growth. We emerge from the battle stronger and wiser.
There’s a really insightful paper, written by Rod Warner and Kurt April (“Builidng personal resilience at work”, Ashridge Business School). Their study looked at people in South Africa who had gone through significant personal traumas, and identified seven common characteristics of personal resilience. Below, I have summarised and built on their key points.
- Grounding and connecting: “I don’t know why this has happened, but it’s for a reason, so I have to accept it and carry on”.
- Having a reason to persevere; knowing what your life goals are and what is important to you.
- Believing that you will be stronger and more resourceful as a consequence of the challenge
- Understanding & accepting self: “I know what my own strengths/vulnerabilities are”.
- Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, so that you can develop your own recovery plan and have reasonable expectations of how quickly/well you will recover
- Controlling & choosing thoughts: “I choose to think positively”.
- Acknowledging your negative thoughts, choosing to control them and turn them into positive ones
- Controlling & choosing feelings: “I can control strong emotional feelings and choose how I express them”.
- Directing your feelings towards positive goals
- Controlling & choosing attitude: “I choose a positive outlook and to live in a way that achieves this”.
- Viktor Frankl’s quotation, written from his experiences as a prisoner of war, exemplifies this “…everything can be taken from a human but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.
- Action focus: “I choose to seek solutions and deal with issues”.
- This needs flexibility, open-mindedness and a willingness to listen to the views of others
- Giving & accepting support: “I easily give and accept support”.
- Being willing/able to admit there is a problem and to ask for help
“Come to the edge” Life said
They said “we are afraid”
“Come to the edge” life said
And they flew
Warner and Aprils’ paper illustrates that personal resilience isn’t something magical that some lucky people are born with. As we go through life we can choose to develop these skills and tools for ourselves.
Exposing ourselves to challenging situations builds, but also maintains, resilience. When I left the mainland in 2006, I left behind me a daily motorway commute on one of the main routes into London. I was amazed at how quickly I lost my confidence in driving in fast moving, heavy traffic.
Leaving my children the knowledge to develop their personal resilience, and then one day do the same for their own families, is now top of my legacy list. One of the best ways I can do this is by encouraging and supporting them to challenge themselves, just as my parents did for me.
As children we spent a week or two of our summer holidays on the South West beaches. Living in one of the furthest places from the sea, to make the most of our time, every day, come rain or shine, we’d be there. It wasn’t unusual to be munching our sandy, soggy egg and cheese sandwiches, whilst sitting shivering in our waterproof jackets (swimwear at the ready underneath). Despite Mum’s protestations, Dad would take us off to climb the cliffs; nothing too risky, you’ll be pleased to know. I can still remember the feeling now; excitement, but trepidation, heightened by look of terror in Mum’s eyes as we waved to her below. Half way up, having slipped on some loose stones, one of us would inevitably start sobbing, saying we couldn’t do it. With Dad’s encouragement we always did. What an immense sense of achievement we all had from scaling what felt like Everest to us as small children.
Let’s make a commitment to seek and embrace new challenges and apply the seven points above in how we deal with them. That way, we’ll have the necessary tools in our armoury for when we have to face the really scary monsters.
I’ve been too scared to try the Beanboozled JellyBeans. Perhaps that should be the first challenge on my resilience building list.