Patti and I explore with you the possibility of spiritual resilience. How can we develop our capacity to not merely to go forward, but to go forward with our spirits stronger than before, to heal as we bear our grief, to find connection even in our despair, to love, even if our hearts are broken?
How do we cope with the moments that break our hearts, our lives and our communities? How do we learn to look at the world with new eyes and look forward to the future just as these high school students who wrote this skit learned to do? How do we bounce back from the hardships, sudden strokes, the death of a life-long partner, estrangement from a family member with mental health issues, divorce, unexpected unemployment, the list goes on. And how do we help our communities suffering super storms, opioids, gun violence, poverty, and more. How can we cultivate a spiritual resilience that ensures that no matter what is breaking in our lives and our communities we are able to create something out our pain and move forward with a sense of purpose, with our spirits stronger, with the ability to laugh even in our grief, and to love, even when our hearts our broken?
According to the dictionary resilience is the ability to return to our original form, position, after being bent, compressed, or stretched. You might think that people who have the capacity to withstand stress without breaking, or have inner strength and mental fortitude are resilient. But, the research says resilience is more about what happens between us than what happens within us. That it is communities that get us back on our feet, and social networks that help us to adapt and change to new conditions. Qualities such as warmth, expressiveness and empathy make these connections that help us become resilient. Qualities we can learn.
Consider Jimmy, an angry young man who because of cancer had to have his right leg removed above his knee two weeks after his diagnosis. He had been a college athlete and that was core to his identity. From his perspective, the surgery that saved his life ended his life. He started drinking heavily, skipping school, and isolated himself from his friends. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, his oncologist, encouraged him to show his feelings, and gave him a drawing pad and asked him to draw a picture of his body. He drew a crude sketch of a vase, just an outline. Running through the center of it he drew a deep crack, going over and over the crack with a black crayon, ripping the paper. It hurt to
watch. But with time he began to take notice of stories in the paper of others in accidents in which legs or limbs were lost, and he would talk endlessly in their sessions together on their behalf, “No one understands them” he would say. Well, Rachel asked him one day what he was going to do about it. So, began a new calling and ministry for this young man. With his spirit renewed and with a new sense of purpose he began visiting these patients in the hospital.
Dr. Remen, a holistic healer is like the sower in our reading, the sower of ancient Palestine who threw their seed indiscriminately over all the land. Dr. Remen kept sowing seeds of hope on the hard rock of Jimmy’s anger hoping that one would take root. She stayed present until one finally did take root and thanks to her presence it grew into empathy, to bear fruit a hundred fold of what was sown. One of my favorite stories about Jimmy concerns a visit he made to a young woman who had lost her mother, her sister, and her cousin to breast cancer. Another sister was in chemotherapy. At twenty-one, she took one of the only options available at the time, she had both her breasts removed surgically. He visited her on a hot midsummer day, wearing shorts his artificial leg in full view. Deeply depressed, she lay in bed with her eyes closed refusing to look at him. He tried everything he knew to reach her without success. He said things to her that only a person with an altered body would dare to say. He made jokes, he even got angry. She did not respond. All the while a radio was playing rock music softly. He finally stood up, and in a last effort to get her attention, he unstrapped the harness of his artificial leg and let it drop to the floor with a loud thump. Startled, she opened her eyes and saw him for the first time. Encouraged, he began to hop around the room snapping his fingers in time to the music and laughing. After a moment she burst out laughing too, “fella,” she said. If you can dance, maybe I can sing.” I like to think Jimmy learned to bring the passion he once knew on the football field to this new field of his life.
Resilience is about transforming how we live our values, how we maintain our identity in ways that liberate and heal. Daniel Lerch of the Post Carbon Institute says the key to resilience is understanding that every life and every community is comprised of a system of relationships and the resilience of any one system is influenced by the resilience of every system around it. This is true in the interplay of relationships between, family, friends, and work and the same is true for the interplay of systems of relationships in between people, businesses, institutions, and infrastructure. And its even true even for the relationship between our mind, body, and spirit, and like Naomi did for Jimmy, we need to establish a boundary and tend to the whole system. To throw seed even on barren rock, trusting the birds to take it where it is needed. To trust that even when the seed take root only to quickly die, nutrients are left for future life. To have confidence we can with time and attention cultivate good soil.
My friends Chris and Mary Jane know this terrain well. They adopted two kids who had been abused for the first six and seven years of their lives. As a family they walk together a lot, and Chris says sometimes she imagines herself walking in front as a seed spreader, sowing seeds of affirmation “You are strong, you can do it, you can be the change you want to see in the world, I have faith in you.” Hoping they take root. Sometimes though the past catches up to them like a darkness that pulls them all into a sinkhole. When this happens, her seed bag is empty and she says it are the starter seeds from friends that get them going again. But she often wonders for how long can they keep doing this? Sometimes she imagines taking a fast U turn to dash up behind the past so that her seeds go into the hole before them, and that her kids will cross the void safely emerging with their own voice to say, “I am strong, I can do it I will be the change I want to see in the world, I have faith in me.” Until one day, this final affirmation will blossom, “I can face the past and walk safely on.” This is how one faithful sower is learning to love, even when her heart is broken.
Poet Jane Hirsfield writes, “ When people have loved each other see how it is like a scar between their bodies, stronger, darker, and proud; how the black cord makes of them a single fabric that nothing can tear or rend.” Communities impacted by trauma seem to know this instinctively. But how do we love each other like this, when not compelled by trauma, how do we love like this in the day to day challenges of our lives? How can we bring what we have learned from our hardships forward on behalf of other’s healing? This is what Video game designer Jane McGonigal wondered after healing from a suicidal depression brought on by a concussion. She wanted to help others cultivate resilience without having to hit their heads, so to speak. So, based on her experience she designed an on-line game called SuperBetter that involves creating your own superhero and power ups. You can get on line and check it out. But today I want to practice with you the 4 mind, body, connection quests that she says cultivates resilience and adds 7.5 minutes to our lives every day that we practice them. But lets not just take her word for it. Ready to add some minutes to your life? Do I have some 2 volunteers to come up and help me lead the quests?
Quest number 1 reminds us to move our bodies at least once every hour. You can stand and take 3 steps, or instead raise your hands and make a fist for 3 seconds. Ready, go-
Quest number 2 practices mental resilience You can chose between snapping your fingers exactly 50 times or counting backwards from 100 by 7. Ready go.
Quest number 3 awakens your feeling of love and builds emotional resilience. If you are near a window look out, this invites curiosity. Then imagine your favorite baby animal and share that with the person next to you. If you experience 3 positive emotions for every negative one, you improve your ability to tackle any problem.
Quest number 4 creates social resilience, Shake hands with someone next to you for 6 seconds. Touch raises the level of oxytocin in your blood-that’s our trust hormone. That means you are all now biologically primed to help each other.
What do you think, do you feel more resilience? By her estimate we just added minutes to our lives. The science says if you regularly boost your physical, emotional social, and mental resilience you will live10 years longer than those don’t. Let us practice resilience and use the time we gain to tend to the systems of relationship in our lives and communities, cultivating good soil within, among, and beyond, so that together we will meet the challenges of this day with a stretching, transforming experience of love that heals at a magnificence of 100 times what is sown. This is my hope, and prayer for you, for us, and for our greater community.