Today – quarantine notwithstanding – you have a guest. Your guest is a very familiar stranger, and they have a very important matter to discuss. They sit down and accept their coffee fixed exactly the way you take it. They don’t bother with small talk. They lean forward, look you straight in the eyes, and say – “What do you have for me?”
Let’s change the viewpoint: What do I have for you? Nothing, everything – something between the two. I have memories; I know that’s what you’re after. But I am not going to give you everything – no, I am going to give you the best. I have carefully picked what to remember from this period of time, this pandemic. There is a theme underlying each of these selected memories. It is called “resilience”.
There is a story called resilience, “…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity.” The psychologists tell it, and they say it can be learned. They say it must be practiced, like any other skill.
What does it feel like to practice resilience?
It isn’t delusion. It doesn’t dull the pain or hide away. Rather, it says: “I won’t surrender life lightly – mine, or yours. We will make a Tomorrow – but first, we’ll face Today.”
This pandemic has had a lot of Todays, so many that they all run together. I remember I didn’t face some of those Todays in a way of which I am proud. Those, particularly, I must not forget. Out of them I craft the memory of Learning.
I remember working in a grocery store, shelves stripped bare. I remember anxiety under a facemask, breathing short and trapped. I remember fighting not to go home before the end of my shift. I remember every single minute of an eight-hour day. I remember how people changed, the fight-or-flight reaction laid bare before my eyes, and I remember feeling myself change, too, becoming reclusive, angry, frustrated.
I remember the rage and meanness sparked by learning my fellow citizens valued their entitlement and fairytale economy over my life.
I remember weaknesses and stress points, a map of the ways in which I crumble.
The psychologists say that resilience is not a fixed state. It arises as an interaction between us and the environments – physical and mental – that we inhabit.
I remember a sudden gift of time. After three years of two jobs, four days off every week seems a miracle of shelter-in-place.
I remember small things, experienced richly. I remember hummingbirds and sunshine, coffee and peach tea. Once there was a hibiscus blossom on the balcony at 3 a.m. on Easter morning.
I remember writing. I remember trying to craft different stories of survival, different paths towards strength and wisdom and healing in times of crippling helplessness. Change; normal; miracle; apocalypse; utopia – each of these concepts have something to offer us. In times of systemic stress, their meanings are rich templates of understanding that can be layered over the world around us, creating depth and shaping growth.
Growth. It’s an understanding shaped by the springtime outside my window, the peace of going home and the panic of going back out to work. Somewhere between the two, I understand that this is what growth feels like.
Growth lives between terror and the everyday, or where terror picks apart and remakes the everyday. I know the stories, the history. I know the present. I know “growth” isn’t a guarantee of survival.
But growth is a lifeline to the possibility of a future you. It’s the tether of a story, consciously crafted; the story of what you choose to remember, what you choose to learn, from catastrophe.
Make no mistake – catastrophe will shape you. There is no question, no exercise that offers control over that.
What you must determine for yourself is how, exactly, you are shaped. That decision is best made early. If you decide right now that you will view each setback as a circumstance shaping you towards a more resourceful, empathetic, caring person – the chances that you will instead succumb to bitterness are reduced.
UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center – and its affiliate Greater Good In Action – offers these science-based practices for building resilience. I have found them useful, and hope you do too.
Of course, I’m making this up as I go along. All I have are experiences and memories, a few articles on the Internet. It’s a tenuous excuse for hope. It’s a tenuous thing to hand over to my future self, that imaginary being who comes calling for coffee and keeps me on track.
She’s been stopping by a lot more frequently since quarantine started. She knows her life depends on the choices I make today, the memories I craft and keep. With her in mind, I try to acknowledge the panic and frustration, rage and restlessness, and use them as catalysts for learning and growth.
So when she asks, “What do you have for me?” – I can answer, a resilient future.