Jay and his sister Maggie grew up in a small northern town, neglected by both parents. Their father, usually absent, was physically abusive when he was home, and their mother, frequently absent also, was intoxicated when present with her children. Jay ended up raising his younger sister, providing the cooking, cleaning and other domestic skills necessary to keep their small trailer habitable. He was skinny and small for his age, and was often bullied and physically abused by schoolmates. Jay did poorly in school, dropped out in Grade Nine, and spent his teenage years in and out of trouble with police. Predictions for his life were that he would have nothing but trouble, in and outside of the law.
Fifteen years later, however, those predictions are far from true. Jay is productive – working and volunteering in his community. He deals with life’s difficulties in a positive and somewhat humorous way. Despite adversity and trauma suffered in his early childhood at the hands of his parents and others, he holds few grudges, and demonstrates compassion to others. What is it about Jay that has enabled him to come through his experience of adversity so positively; to negate the predictions made for him and to be resilient despite difficulty? Resiliency – the ability to spring back from adversity – is an area receiving attention from researchers in recent years. The question has become increasingly significant, as reports of human tragedy flood news coverage from around the world. What protects the human spirit in the face of adversity? What can we learn from those who are resilient, to apply to our everyday lives, to help us cope with the difficulties of life? I have learned much from the people I talk with each week. Those I have come to respect deeply are those who have walked through adverse life circumstances and yet still display optimism, determination and humour. These “positive survivors” share a number of commonalties that we can adopt in our everyday life as we face our difficulties as well.
First, expect that life will be difficult. Scott Peck states this as the first premise of his first book, “The Road Less Travelled.” Most of us in our North American society have the expectation that life should be easy. We often believe that whatever struggle we’re having at the present moment is unique, and we are pigeonholed into some type of painful experience, isolated and alone with no one able to understand our pain. However, if we enlarge our perspective, we realise the experience of pain and difficulty is a normative one, which can be shared not only interpersonally, but internationally. Once we understand and accept the simple fact that life is difficult, the fact that it is no longer matters. It is what we DO with the difficulties that matters. Secondly, don’t try to avoid the legitimate suffering that comes with difficult circumstances. Malcolm Muggeridge has said, “As I look back on my life, the greatest teacher has been my adversity.” Accepting pain does not mean you have to like it, but accepting it is the beginning of learning from it and developing resilience because of it. Thirdly, deal constructively with negative emotions. I believe most individuals enter their adult years with a large accumulation of negative emotions-anger, inadequacy, false guilt, worry, fear-which they willingly carry around with them like a huge unseen gunnysack on their back. Negative emotions are often hard earned, and come by honestly…yet living with these emotions is exhausting. It’s like the experience I had with my first car, a Volkswagen. I drove around for quite some time with the emergency brake on, not understanding why the vehicle was so sluggish, lacking its usual pep. It felt like something was holding it back, but I wasn’t sure what. To handle our negative emotions, we need to recognise we do have them, and become aware of the harm they inflict on ourselves and others. We then need to be proactive, taking constructive steps to eradicate their chronic presence. Having lived in Chicago for a number of years, I enjoy the story of the businessman who always bought a daily newspaper from a certain cantankerous vendor each day who verbally insulted and abused his patrons. The businessman, in turn, was always pleasant and congenial.
When asked why he continued to carry on with this practise when other more pleasant vendors were nearby, he replied, “Because I want to prove to myself that I can always be in control of my own reactions, despite how I am acted upon by others.”
Certain situations do provoke anger, stress, irritability, worry or fear. But ultimately the choice of response is our own. By choosing to control our reactions, we also choose to limit the hold negative emotions could have on us. Positive survivors choose constructive responses to difficult situations. There comes a time in our adult lives when we realise forgiveness is in order – our parents weren’t perfect, others have disappointed or hurt us or we have disappointed ourselves. To deal with the attitudes of bitterness that creep in and choke out our enjoyment of life, we need to practise forgiveness to three groups of people: our parents, others in our past and present, and ourselves. Forgiveness frees us from the burden of holding onto resentment and anger. Finally, positive survivors say “yes!” to life. Saying yes to life means agreeing to those things which life hands you-not only the positive things, but also the difficulties and the painful experiences. At its highest point, saying “yes” to life even includes growing into gratitude for life’s difficulties. Saying “yes” to life also includes looking ahead to one’s future, dreaming possibilities and making plans. The habits we have today dictate the kind of person we will be in two years time, five years time, or ten years time. Who would you like to be five years from now? What do you want to be doing? What kinds of relationships do you hope to have? Look to where you would like to be in your future, and begin the steps to developing the character, the relationships and the career you would like to have. A choice is our first step toward making a change to deal positively with life’s negatives.