9 Lessons of Resilience
I don’t know about you, but this third lockdown is starting to wear me down in a way the others didn’t. I’ve been trying to identify the reason why I’m feeling so fed up this time. I think it’s because there was a time frame that felt ‘doable’ on the first two occasions: three weeks, three months, one year. Before the new year ticked over, those all seemed ‘doable’ because it seemed like there was an end in sight. I think that’s been the challenge for my resilience; I realise I’m better at coping with things that have a clear expiry to them; I’m less resilient at things that drag on.
It was clear from the way people approached New Year that they felt it was 2020 alone that was cursed; 2020 alone that carried the pestilence of illness, deaths, fear, delays, restrictions and disappointments. But now the pandemic has bled into 2021 when we are Covid weary and hopeful - no - needful of some freedoms.
The claustrophobic feeling of being on house arrest this past week got me thinking about what resilience is, how we develop it and how we maintain it in the face of challenges that seem to have no clear end to them. The universe must have picked up on the direction of my thinking, because, quite by chance, I came across this article about the simultaneously tragic and up-lifting story of quadriplegic, John McClamrock.
McClamrock was 17 years old when he was paralysed from the neck down in a sports accident in 1973. His spinal injury was so severe that he couldn’t even sit in a chair without passing out; therefore, he was forced to spend the rest of his life lying in a bed tended to by his mother, Ann. Reading the story of John and his family’s experiences had me dabbing my eyes with the edge of my sleeve, and it offered me a timely insight into what resilience looks like.
Whilst there are some things in the story of the McClamrocks that I feel are unhealthy, such as the way time seems to freeze in the house, and the rigidity of Ann’s devotion to John, the way the family face their adversity is incredible. It is Rudyard Kipling that wrote that his son would know he’d become a ‘man’ when he could ‘Meet with triumph and disaster; and treat those two imposters just the same.’ The reference here is to Stoicism: the ability to embody equanimity in the face of distress. I feel this is exactly what the McClamrocks achieve: they really do succeed in ‘finding the good in what seems to be the most horrible thing in the world.’
If, like me, you’re beginning to feel yourself fray a little around the edges in the eye of this third lockdown, in this piece, I’ve tried to crystallise the elements of resilience I saw in the story of the McClamrocks:
A Balance of Hope & Realism
Whilst the McClamrocks start out believing and hoping that John might walk – and even play football – again, there’s a point that John begins to become more realistic about what he’ll be able to achieve. In the immediate aftermath of John’s accident, hope is needed to motivate those around him; to galvanise them into purposeful action. Hope can help to keep us going when we’re not ready to accept our limitations or the reality of our situation; hope is something we set outside of ourselves; something to keep us moving forward at times that we are in danger of collapse. When John’s life lost all semblance of what a teenager expected it to look like, he needed the hope of walking again to get him through. I like to think of hope as the magnetic force that pulls the compass needle north: indispensible in guiding us when are lost.
Realism came when he was ready to let go of the hope that he would walk again. By the time he reached graduation, he had learned how to live his life differently, starting to fill it with new purpose and new skills. Whilst hope is that ‘magnetic force’ outside of us, realism is the knowledge within. When we move from what we ‘hope’ to what we ‘know’, it can put us powerfully in touch with what’s really possible. To push the compass metaphor, realism is the road we know. It’s when John becomes more comfortable with the reality of his physical limitations that he begins investing in his greatest strength: his mind.
Try this: if you are trying to make a decision, don't bar yourself from any idea; entertain them all, no matter how 'out there' they might seem. Once you've given yourself time to dream, you can re-visit each idea with your 'realism' hat on, measuring each idea against your needs.
My husband is a keen cyclist. He has all the gear: the lycra, the special shoes that clip into his peddles, the little packets of glucose gels he takes with him on long rides. This dedication to his sport is why he can eliminate half a stone in a few weeks whilst I down a slice of cake and then ask (pathetically in search of reassurance) ‘do you think I look fat?’ He is capable of far more discipline than I am when it comes to fitness, and he delights in telling me that elite cyclists who complete the Tour de France exist for months on steamed fish and water (to which I say, what a waste of France!).
It’s Ann’s discipline in the story of the McClamrocks that is as humbling to me as the strict regimes of those wiry elite cyclists. The secret of, both, her resilience and her discipline is in the routine she carves out for herself around John’s needs; a routine that I’m sure carefully meted out the spoonfuls of mental, emotional and physical energy she had to spare for each day. Routine, like our beliefs and values, are things that anchor us and give meaning and purpose to our time.
Another way in which I found myself humbled by Ann’s discipline was in the descriptions of the ‘cracked’ tennis shoes, ‘cheap’ exercise bike and ‘catalogue’ clothes she bought herself. Having chosen to care for John at home, and therefore sacrificing her job at a bank, Ann had to discipline herself to live frugally, reminding us that resilience is often about prioritising.
Try this: if you've been struggling with low mood or depression, make three lists 1. of things that bring you pleasure 2 of things that bring you a sense of achievement and 3. of things that are essential chores. Create yourself adaily routine from things from each list.
Visualisation & Goals
Right from the outset, Ann is adamant: ‘My Johnny isn’t going to die! You’ll see; he’s going to have a good life!’ This is her vision. This is her goal. And she sticks to it until her dying day.
Resilience works better when we know what we are trying to achieve. Whilst it becomes clear as their story unfolds that the goal was never really for John to walk again, but simply to live and to live as well as he could, Ann seems implicitly to understand that John needs things to strive for and, more than that, a way to visualise and imagine those things. The early re-decoration of his bedroom, with the shotgun, signed footballs and pictures of him in his uniform, when he finally returns home is a fantastic example of how to use visualisation to keep yourself focused on your goals.
Try this: if you've been struggling with a goal you set yourself at the beginning of the year, grab a prompt card and write down the following: 1. what life will feel like/look like when you have achieved that goal (use all your senses as if you are there in that very moment) and 2. all the things you did to get to that point (as if you've already done them). Display the prompt card with the two lists o it somewhere you will see it everyday.
This is something there could be more of in the McClamrocks’ lives; Ann’s unwavering self-sacrifice and devotion is as admirable as it is terrifying. She could have agreed for John to have gone into a home; she could have gone back to work part-time at least; she could have asked for more help rather than taken it all on her own shoulders. These inflexibilities point to the fear that motivated Ann’s great sacrifice - the fear known by all who are mothers: that of outliving your own child.
There are also moments of great innovation and invention in their story which models the kind of flexibility that is key for the development of resilience. One such example is the way in which Ann would tape the straw to the side of the glass so that John could experience just a little bit of autonomy – for a man who couldn’t wipe his own bottom, imagine what that tiny adaptation meant for him.
Perhaps the most important moment of adaptation is the moment that John moved away from wanting the things that he once thought he’d have achieved as a teenager and started to read about the world and learn new things; I loved reading about the new ways he found to do old things, such as reading the newspaper.
Try this: reflect on a problem you've been grappling with recently. Ask yourself whether or not you have tried all the ways possible for approaching it, and whether you have been open to alternatives.
I admit whilst reading this that I felt for Henry. I wonder at his humility whilst all his mother’s devotion and attention went to his brother; but I realise that his own sacrifices for his brother are a testament to the closeness of this family and the values they share. Family is certainly a key element at the heart of this story of resilience; the McClamrocks have a shared goal: to keep John alive as long as possible.
It isn’t just the family network here, however, that enables John to feel supported and valued; it’s his friends and the wider community, whose acts of kindness no doubt gave John something to live for. As the saying goes, 'it takes a village to raise a child', and it is certainly evident in the story of the McClamrocks that EVERYONE recognised they could play a part in John's recovery, wellbeing and survival. It seems, when John saw and heard them rooting for him, he rooted for himself.
Try this: draw a diagram of your family network or freindship circle to show how close you feel to each individual. If you discover that you seem isolated, decide which of your contacts you are going to work on bringing closer.
It might seem something of a no-brainer to point out that strength is an element of resilience, but it is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the world. For example, I have worked with many clients who believed that strength lies in being physically strong, or in being passive aggressive, punitive or vengeful. All too often, people live their lives without any realisation of what inner strength is.
There is a moment in the story of the McClamrocks when John finds himself falling in love, and he is described as ‘hiding his weak body’ so that his lady visitor can’t see it. It is one of several references to the weakness and vulnerability of his physical body. What contrasts these reminders of John’s limitations are the descriptions of his strengths; in particular, his memory. To the surprise of his old school friends, John can remember them; he starts to memorise general knowledge facts. Another strength John has is his warmth and his ability to listen. It’s when we more accurately come to recognise what our strengths are that we can truly learn how to persevere.
The most striking thing of all is how strong our bodies are and how stubbornly they refuse to give up. Even John's weaked body carries him for far more years than he imagined it would.
Try this: audit your concept of strength by writing down all the things you consider to be a skill, talent or advantage. Ask a friend or two to look at the list and tell you if they feel you've left anything out.
Gratitude is a trendy word in wellbeing circles these days, but not without reason. John’s resilience is particularly striking in his ability to be happy for the developments in the lives of those with whom he went to school.
It would have been easy for John to have sunk into bitterness given the trajectory of his life and to express jealousy and envy towards those whose lives had flourished in the ways they were ‘supposed’ to. Initially, it seems those who went to visit him seemed to believe he wouldn't want to hear about their exploits and successes – to their surprise, it’s John who invited them to share their joys and achievements with him.
His ability to share in their happiness, and be thankful for all that they had achieved, is an incredibly important lesson in resilience, because he doesn’t limit his compassion by looking for someone or something to blame for his situation.
Try this: at the end of each day, write down one thing you are grateful for on a slip of paper and pop it in a jar. At the end of each week, pour out the contents of the jar and re-read each slip to remind yourself of all the things you have in life to be grateful of.
Belief System & Values
One thing that Ann held onto fast during those brutal years was her faith. Her Catholicism gave her maxims to repeat, it gave the suffering of her family meaning, and its teachings gave her focus. This doesn’t mean we all need to rush to the church to become ‘born again’, but what it does indicate is the importance of our belief systems and values in the development of our resilience.
Our beliefs help to anchor us; they give us a framework on which to hang the things we experience. I don’t follow any sort of organised religion; instead, my beliefs about the world are based on what I observe in nature. My walks along the tow paths and through the fields are my sermons. Nature helps to remind me that the world is ephemeral and that nothing lasts forever.
Faith doesn’t have to mean a God of any kind. My husband and I watched ‘Cast Away’ for the first time in years the other night. Before the fateful plane crash that leaves Tom Hanks’ character stranded on an island in the Pacific, his lover gifts him an antique pocket watch with a photo of her inside it. It’s this photo that gives him faith when he feels lonely, when the storms come, and when he builds a raft out of tree trunks and the washed up carcass of a portaloo!
Try this: either write down your top 5 values and keep these displayed where you can see them every day, or connect to the 'higher power' you believe in by making it a part of your weekly or daily routine; this could be through prayer, or by choosing a crystal to keep close.
Resilience is absolutely NOT about dragging yourself on through the challenges of your life until you drop.
Many people are conditioned in their childhood to believe that admitting you’re tired, unwell, or in need of a rest is admitting ‘weakness’, but forcing yourself to keep going long after your body starts to show signs of stress is only going to lead to burnout; eventually, your body will simply make the decision for you.
Whilst I feel Ann McClamrock deserved to set more time aside to live more of her own life, even she made self-care an unnegotiable part of her routine. I have no doubt that those hours in the salon at JCPenny having her hair set were when Ann felt like a human being again. I imagine it gave her much needed break from the house, giving her the excuse she needed to be away from John (because I do think Ann was the kind of person who needed an excuse), time just to sit and to have something done for her by someone else – and I imagine it gave her the opportunity to talk, too.
Try this: make a list of things you can do when you're feeling tired or low. Try to think of ways you could self-soothe using all your sense; for example, scented candles, a beautiful art book to flick through, a lovely warm blanket and so on.
If you chose to read the story of the McClamrocks before you read my analysis of it, I wonder what other elements of resilience you noticed in their lives? I’d love to hear your reactions to their story.