This is a word that keeps coming back to me but not because I say it to or about myself, rather because there’s a very small handful of those who keep saying it is a quality I possess in great supply. To be honest, I have a difficult time hearing this word applied to me, in part for the same reason that I have a difficult time receiving praise or compliments (I’m shy, I blush, and regardless of the source, I have a hard time believing it’s true) and in part because to some degree I feel like a complete and utter fraud who has only glamored everyone into thinking I’m resilient with my quick wit and stunning personality.
It’s true. I’m an insecure, hot mess. Always have been. Remarkably so.
When I was younger and got out of speeding tickets and into (far too) many free dinners and drinks I always assumed it was because I was good at reading people and playing coquettish (things that I do well) not because I thought I was attractive or my personality on its own is magnetic.
When I traveled and never had a hitch, magically got bumped to first class, and always had someone putting up or taking down my carry-on it was because of my sexy-ass stilettos and doe eyes (things I put on), or because those people are simply incredibly helpful human beings, not because there was something innately unique or interesting about me.
When people at work attacked me for being too stylish as a teacher (what I put on) or with ideological arguments about how I was teaching my students (what I do), it never occurred to me that jealousy could be a source of the friction because I was different so I took their attacks personally and to heart.
So when someone tells me I am resilient my reaction is to immediately find something else to say about myself that doesn’t sound quite so… positive and nice. A week ago I told someone that it isn’t resilience but stubbornness.
Oh, Gwen, when will you learn to say, “thank you,” and to see yourself through other’s eyes?!
Yesterday I was met with some frustrations that left me feeling bereft and a little hopeless, only instead of any other reaction I let myself completely melt down. “Not very resilient Gwen,” I thought angrily as I began to question myself:
How is it that I can handle so many other, bigger problems and bigger obstacles so well and this little thing completely broke me down?
How could anyone think I am resilient?
It’s true. I entertained those thoughts for a few minutes. I sat in them and let them pour over me like I was sitting on a park bench in a downpour without an umbrella and without any intention of finding shelter. After a few minutes of soaking in all those emotions, I was ready to be done, pick myself up, and move on toward finding solutions but it still bothered me that I had stopped in that downpour at all so I wondered to a friend how I could let something so small break me down so quickly. Her response was, well, brilliant:
A friend of mine gave me a statue of a Phoenix for Christmas because I had declared in Beauty from Pain that I would always rise from the ashes. When a Phoenix cries, it’s tears have the ability to heal. When a Phoenix reaches the end of a cycle, it burns up to ash, but it always rises again from them. It’s a recurring process that cannot be avoided, but why would a Phoenix want to avoid it anyway? It’s what a Phoenix does!
Go through some shit, cry, heal some things, burn up, rise again, repeat.
“Huh. Interesting…” I thought to myself, “But what does this say about resilience?”
As a vocabularian (that’s British English, by the way, not American), I pride myself on knowing words, scads of them, and using them correctly and as frequently as possible. Having the right word for the right moment makes me much happier than seems reasonable to those of you who aren’t that into words. (It’s true.) So I thought to myself, as any decent vocabularian would, “What is the deepest meaning of resilience? Does it actually apply?”
Resilient comes from the Latin word resilire meaning “to leap back.” Oftentimes I think the idea of resilience is met with the idea that if something is resilient it is able to fully withstand an external force when truly resilience is more the ability to not break because of that force and to be able to spring back quickly from it.
That rings true. I may have moments where I melt down, but they usually don’t last and I usually spring back quickly, rather like a Phoenix rising quickly from the ashes.
There’s an ancient Indian proverb that I came across recently that has been restated a dozen times by a dozen authors and speakers from various religions because it’s just that profoundly and exceptionally Elysian:
Whatever you are overflowing with will spill out when you are bumped.
Let me share an analogy based on this thought that’s been making its way around the internet lately that reframed this proverb a tad more meaningfully:
You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and bumps into you making you spill your coffee everywhere.
Why did you spill the coffee?
“Well because someone bumped into me, of course!”
You spilled the coffee because there was coffee in your cup.
Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea.
Whatever is inside the cup is what will spill out.
Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you, which WILL happen, whatever is inside you will come out.
It’s easy to fake it, until you get rattled.
So we have to ask ourselves, “What’s in my cup?”
When life gets tough, what spills over?
Joy, gratefulness, peace, and humility?
Or anger, bitterness, harsh words, and reactions?
Honestly look at yourself a moment:
How do you react when all hell has broken loose in your life, when the monkeys are flinging poo and the tigers are eating the clowns, and when you find yourself taking a walk through Dante’s worst imagination?
I don’t mean, “Do you have a moment or two where you remind yourself that orange isn’t your favorite color, that puffy eyes aren’t pretty and you don’t look good with that Jack Sparrow mascara smear, and that it’s not worth the worry wrinkles?”
I mean, when you take a hit and you get knocked down…
Do you stay down or do you get up?
Do you bend and rebound, or do you break?
Do you carry on with grace, humor, joy, and love, or do you carry on willing yourself to be a miserable schmuck, wallowing in self pity, glorifying your bitterness and inability to forgive, and filling yourself with hate?!
Are you resilient?
Because now that I think about it, it is pretty amazing to discover what I’m filled with and to realize I am resilient.
Maybe one of these days I’ll learn to listen better to those who know me better than I know myself.
Originally published 29 December 2017