I’m speaking about resilience toward the end of this week at a conference in Maryland and have been completing my talk and presentation for the group.
I’ve integrated several sources into my plans for the session and can’t wait to share it. Sources include womanist theology, critiques of conventional “death-surrogate” atonement, personal narratives, self- and community-care strategies, and a wellness audit I’ve used to keep myself grounded over the years.
One of the articles I quote from this time round is a 2014 edited version of an interdisciplinary research panel on resilience. Each researcher in the article has conducted longitudinal studies of populations that have experienced and responded to significant trauma.
Why, these researchers ask, does one person respond to trauma with balance and another develop post-traumatic stress disorder? Why does one person with PTSD recover from it and another struggle life-long? What do these varying responses teach us about what resilience is, what it’s not, and which interventions are helpful?
The article, “Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives,” is available to the public on PubMed and I highly recommend it.
Here’s one of the best anecdotes (CN: democide references):
Minnesota is a refugee destination, where we have had an influx of Cambodian men and women, as well as many other war refugees from around the world. In recent years, we have seen a great many refugees from Eastern Europe and African countries. Observing their trauma symptoms and recovery has influenced my thoughts about resilience (see Masten, 2014b). The Cambodian refugees who came to Minnesota as young people were children when they were exposed to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. In Minnesota, we have one of the largest, if not the largest, concentration of survivors in the United States from that tragic period. Many of these young people would have periodic flare ups of PTSD symptoms. To echo what Dr. Yehuda said, they did not leave their traumatic experiences and symptoms behind, yet I believe everyone would describe them as a remarkably resilient group of people. These were true survivors. When people asked us if we had a comparison group, we could find only one person in our region of the United States who represented a reasonable comparison, because he left Cambodia just before the killings began. That individual was a foot taller than any other person in our sample, likely due to the advantages in nutrition and protein intake he experienced. In other words, the comparison group did not make it out of the ‘killing fields.’ The Minnesota refugees were all survivors, and many of these young people were getting on with their lives.” —Dr. Ann Masten
Sometimes people discuss trauma recovery and imply that the best way to respond is to feel little and change nothing, to dig in and deny impacts. That approach, while very Stoic, is unlikely to help most people, who feel a lot and for whom great pain transforms everything.
With some of my deepest traumas, I’ve learned to practice the principle that some experiences will so disrupt my world that they’ll come to mark the start of the rest of my life. Because of these experiences, I’m changed and I have to change.
Change might mean I handle certain people and relationships differently. It might mean I come into a new relationship with a part of myself that was in shadow until light dawned. And it might mean more simply that I free myself to imagine new futures, set new goals, and meet new people.
What I never want it to mean for me is that my heart hardens against the world and I become rigid or cruel. It happens. I just don’t want it to happen to me.
I now accept that as much as I offer others compassion for their “periodic flare ups of PTSD symptoms,” I also need to offer myself compassion during mine. Self-compassion needs to be every bit as much a part of my wellness routine as the “real food” I insist on eating.
Making mutual compassion standard for all of us could make recovering from traumas and challenging experiences so much easier: when community wellness depends on individual wellness, being well shouldn’t rise or fall on individual grit.
Don’t underestimate the influence of the social.