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I attended a conference entitled “Keys to Family Resilience: Healing and Positive Growth out of Crisis, Trauma and Loss”, last Saturday. Dr. Froma Walsh shared her thirty years of research and clinical work studying what helps families rebound from crisis. This is a timely subject with our Japanese neighbors reeling from the devastation of a severe earthquake, followed by a tsunami and now nuclear reactors threatening to melt down and release radioactivity into the environment. As we are overwhelmed by their extreme loss, we are also incredibly impressed with the Japanese response: no looting, order, sacrificing lives for the good of the rest. And one can’t help but wonder, how well would we cope with this level of adversity? Besides an emergency prepared kit and water, how can we prepare ourselves for the inevitable crises of life?

Dr. Walsh defined resilience as keeping going in crisis. It is coping plus adaptation plus positive growth. As the Chinese characters for crisis display, there is both challenge and opportunity in the tough times. The Japanese say resilience is like “a willow tree that bends in the storm but does not break.”  

Research shows that the in the wake of a crisis, the majority of people regain their bearings in 3-9 months and find a way to go on their own. Of course, the more complex and persistent the stress is, the more complicated the recovery.  In contrast to our cultural myth of the rugged individualist, who valiantly trudges through on their own, resilient people tend to say “I couldn’t have done it on my own; I turned to others for help.” In other words, “relationships nurture resilience”.

To thrive, individuals need supportive people in their lives who will believe in them, affirm their strengths and abilities, inspire their hopes and dreams, encourage their best efforts, see their mistakes as opportunities to learn and celebrate their successes. So whether we are spouses, parents, teachers, friends or any other role, we can take every opportunity to encourage, or “draw out courage” for others, especially when they are suffering. We are to master the art of the possible: Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are.

Dr. Walsh has discovered that those who manage the best in adversity are those who have a bigger picture and purpose in life. Often this is reflected in spirituality and the faith practices of a community. Mentors, life dreams, the ability to see new possibilities and creative expression are also characteristics of resilient people. Often, as a result of a tragedy, people redirect their life priorities, they deepen and repair bonds and have new compassion for others.

I love being a therapist because my privilege is to facilitate resilience in my clients. It is to feel the depths of their darkness and despair and also gradually see the light beaming ever so softly through the window again. It is a thrill to share the journey as people make meaning of their suffering and let it transform them into even wiser,  more thoughtful and compassionate souls. As Joseph Campbell says, “A hero is one who does the best of things in the worst of times seizing every opportunity.” I work with many heroes.