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Shifting Gears / Lessons of the storm

Published 5:41 pm, Thursday, November 15, 2012
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In case we had forgotten, Hurricane Sandy reminded us of two true things. One, we are not safe and, two, we are resilient. The forces of nature and of man have, from the beginnings of our origins, kept us vigilant, prepared and cautious. And because we are still here to tell our tale, those forces have made us resilient.

We wouldn't be resilient if the world were safe. There would be no need. The second half of the 20th century was about lulling us into a sense that we were secure and in control. The 21st century, from its very start, appears to be saying otherwise.

Psychologically speaking, resilience is another name for mental health. And a hallmark of mental health is living in reality -- the world as it is rather than how we wish it were. It is when we have lost something important that resilience is called for. We lose many things in the course of life -- loved ones, youth, abilities, jobs, places, times, hopes, beauty and full heads of hair. Grief and nostalgia help us wade through the slough. Eventually, if we are to get on with life, we get used to the new reality. But more than that is needed if we are to be resilient.

It's more than making do. It's more than accepting loss, even if we do it gracefully. Resilience has a creative energy in it. It has a little bit of "OK, let's see where I go now" to it.

Resilience is supple, flexible and pliable. It is not brittle or tense or reactive.

Change and loss are two sides of the same coin. As are crisis and opportunity for the Chinese. Gabby Giffords and Hillary Clinton are two very resilient women -- taking a loss (for Hillary, several) and getting on to a different direction. It appears neither stayed too long in mourning the past or what could have been.

All the things that seemed to keep us safe in the latter twentieth century -- peace, a booming economy, abundant food, clothing, shelter and toys, the promises of the human genome, a balanced national budget, no less. We could thumb our communal nose at resilience. It really wasn't needed.

Alas, the new century has brought us to our knees several times already. We can't go back. We are where we are. The climate has changed. The third world wants a share of the bounty. Our debt is huge. Europe is fragile. So are our safety nets. Now, we need resilience.

What does resilience need from us? Well, it needs us to be truthful about where we are. It needs us to believe in ourselves, in our ability to deal with reality. It needs us to stay in the present -- not mourning the past or imagining a fantastical (or disastrous) future. Resilience is steady, perhaps plodding, certainly patient. It needs from us a sense of humor, a kindness to one another, a robust enjoyment of small things. And gratitude -- that we have what we have and that we are capable of so much. Resilience needs us to not be afraid. It needs us to persist, to work hard and happily. It, probably, needs us to come together, to share more and compete less.

We were comfy before the world changed. But now, we are on an adventure. We don't really know what's in store for us. We don't know when or where the next storm will hit, what the job market will be like or the stock market, how we will grow old or what college our kids will be able to afford. We don't know what kind of world awaits us, our children or our children's children. All we know for sure is that we can be resilient. It's in our DNA. It's who we are.

Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at shiftinggears.swenson@gmail.com.