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Resilient Enough to Overcome Anything

The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

I’ve long been fascinated by people who’ve overcome despair, catastrophe, and trauma and forged new ways of living filled with hope, joy, gratitude, meaning, and purpose. I’ve spent a lot of years studying their lives.

Some have lived in modern times, but the ones who stand out to me are those who lived in history’s truly difficult times. Among them are people like St. Francis, who lived in the 12th Century. He had been a young, wealthy dilatant, preoccupied with drinking and chasing young women. Suddenly his whole life was turned upside down after being captured in the first moments of a battle he had no training or skill for. Spending a year in a festering, squalid dungeon, he re-emerged as a changed man who was ready to devote his life to compassion, love, and faith.

Another, Ignatius of Loyola, had been a magnificent and glorified soldier. During a battle his leg was shattered by a cannonball, which led him to spend more than a year in bed convalescing. He developed a new vision for his life and became a deeply spiritual man, eventually helping to found the Jesuits in 1539—a society for Catholics committed to education, self-reflection, and service.

The one who stands out to me the most is St. Patrick. There are so many fanciful myths about the man, but even when you strip those away, his story was amazing. As a 5th Century teen from a wealthy family in the southwestern part of the Roman province of Britain, he was captured by Celtic raiders and taken back to Ireland. He was forced to live as a slave for nine years, mostly as a 24 hour-a-day, 365 days-a-year shepherd.

Constantly starving and exposed to the elements, Patrick had to become physically, emotionally, and spiritually resilient. He had to develop strength he hadn’t had before. He also discovered God’s presence peeking through nature all around him. Responding to a dream telling him that a boat was waiting to take him home, he eventually embarked on a frightening march to the sea. When he got there, miraculously a group of traders were already there and agreed to take him back to Britain.

If you or I had escaped slavery, the last thing we’d want to do is to return to live among our captors. Amazingly, upon his return home, Patrick felt a call to return to Ireland as a priest and a bishop to minister to the Celtic people, who at that time were a fiercely tribal and violent people. What would cause him to want to go back? He spent the next ten years being trained as a priest and was finally named the Bishop of Ireland prior to his return. What allowed him to grow from his experiences rather than to be crushed by them?

These people inspire me. We’ve grown sensitive to people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our therapists do tremendous work with those suffering the trauma of war, abuse, severe bullying, tragedies and more. Still, there are some who face trauma and grow in response. They still have some level of PTSD, but that’s overcome by what’s called Post-Traumatic Growth Syndrome (PTGS). Patrick was a person who clearly had PTSD, but he found a way to develop PTGS. He had resilience physically, emotionally, spiritually. So many of us struggle with life, especially in response to the twin traumas of our culture—pandemic and polarization.

How do we develop a resilient response to the struggles we face? Let me share some ideas:

Assessing Reality: Those who develop this kind of resiliency are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. They’re realists. They fully understand the situations they are in and accept them as reality. At the same time, they also recognize that they can create their own reality by how they respond to their situation. There’s the reality of their situation in life, and there’s the reality of how to respond to it, which leads us to…

Appreciation over Depreciation: Those with resilience learn to look at life with a sense of appreciation rather than depreciation. In other words, as bad as things are around them, they can be like St. Patrick, who began to experience God through the beauty of the surrounding hills, trees, grass, sheep, sun, moon, stars, and more. He experienced God in a beauty that contrasted with the ugliness of humanity.

Imagine a New Reality: Resilient people assess their present reality, but because they are appreciative, they can imagine a life beyond their present reality. They become intentional about crafting a different way of life. They choose to look for what’s possible, and as a result change their reality, even if it takes time.

Letting go of Loss: These people do recognize and grieve over what’s been lost through their turmoil and trauma. They don’t deny it, they work through it. And then they let go of the loss in order to move forward toward…

Obstacles turn into Opportunity: No matter how much we may want to change, we will always face obstacles. Always! The obstacles aren’t the problem. It’s how we respond to the obstacles that matter. Do we confront the obstacles and become stuck, or do we take advantage of them as opportunities to grow in new directions? My guiding metaphor for this is water. Notice how water reacts with obstacles. It either goes in new directions, finds a way to overcome them, or erodes them. Water doesn’t stop. Francis used imprisonment to grow. Ignatius used convalescence to grow. Patrick used his slavery and shepherding to grow. How do we use our situations to grow?

Resilient people aren’t necessarily special people. Instead, they are people who face the same dilemmas we face, or worse, and find ways to grow through them. Samaritan is here to help.

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