man sitting on mountain overlooking view of water and ridges

"The beautiful thing about resilience is that it is a skill that can be developed and honed over time."

It was 5:15 AM on a Friday morning in 2015. Karissa, my girlfriend, was heading off to the early morning yoga class that she taught. As part of our ritual, half asleep, I muttered “Have fun at yoga”, then rolled over and went back to sleep. Those words would prove to be the last I ever said to her.

On her way to teach yoga, Karissa was attacked. She was ambushed, shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend who subsequently took his own life—a tragedy of unfathomable proportion. And while I have had my share of adverse experiences, this was by far the most substantial of my life. 

This was when I would be called upon to be more resilient than I might have ever thought possible.  

Resiliency. What does that even mean? I suspect that is a good place to start. The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as, “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

Is this definition problematic? Indeed, many men I talk to do not truly understand what it means to be resilient. As men, we equate toughness with not showing that we are going through difficult times. We think that somehow if we can just put up this facade of being OK, we will magically come out okay on the other side. We have been conditioned to hide our discomfort, pain and struggles for fear of being judged as “weak” by our fellow men. We tend to have a misguided sense of what toughness means. 

Psychologists often define resilience as, “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. “

While this is a reasonable definition, it still begs the question, what does “adapting well” actually mean? This is where we, as men, often run into problems. Our version of “adapting well” is often skewed by perceived societal expectations of “manning up” that often means we end up adapting really fucking poorly.

For me, the key to resilience is to look for the lessons in the experience, no matter how devastating. As cliche as it may sound, it really was about changing the thoughts from “Why is this happening to me?” to “What can I learn from this experience?”

It was about understanding that I cannot change the past. I cannot undo the event. All I can do is to take from it what I can, learn, and grow. So as painful as it was for me, it became about finding purpose in that pain. 

After Karissa was murdered, a friend of mine shared with me the writings of Ram Dass – specifically, his “Letter to Rachel”, a letter written to the grieving parents of a young girl who had been murdered. I have read those words hundreds of times since. Three key lines from that letter really stood out to me and would ultimately change my life.  

1. “Is anyone strong enough to remain conscious through such teachings as you are receiving? Probably very few.”

When I read that line, I realized that I had a choice. I could go numb and insulate myself from the pain with any number of available options. Already an “accomplished workaholic”, I could numb myself that way. On the other hand, I could choose the bottle or perhaps drugs to numb the pain. There is certainly no shortage of options to avoid feeling.

However, when I read that line, I knew that I had to choose to remain conscious through this experience and use it to learn and grow. I cannot change what has happened, but I can choose what I do with what has happened. The tragedy I experienced was not an opportunity that I would wish upon my worst enemy, though it was nevertheless an opportunity to grow as a person. 

2. “Our rational minds will never understand, but our hearts if we keep them open will find their own intuitive way.”

I cannot tell you how many times I asked the question, “Why?”

“Why her? Why Now? Why, Why, Why, Why, Why!!!”

As humans, we tend to like to think of ourselves as rational beings and as a result, we seek to understand the “Why”. Yet, there are times when there is no rational answer. There is no understanding, and we need to simply let go of our heads, and learn to trust our hearts to find our way through.

3. “Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength.”

Now was not the time for me to show ‘resilience’ by creating a false front of strength. Now was the time for me to have the courage to let my feelings flow. To allow them to come to the surface and be brave enough to explore them. 

As a man, this was difficult for me. To allow all of my feelings of sorrow, grief, shame, anger and resentment to actually move through me went against much of what society had conditioned me to believe what it means to “be a man”. Yet allowing those feelings to ebb and flow, rise and subside was unquestionably the best medicine, the best formula for resilience that I could have ever been prescribed. 

It’s important to understand that while my grief and requisite resilience came from a very obvious tragedy, these same principles apply regardless of the magnitude of the event that you may be facing. Grief comes in many forms and is not just the loss of a loved one. Any source of adversity, stress or loss requires some form of resilience to move forward.

The Three Keys to Resilience

I apply the three lines I took from that letter to many areas of my life when I am called upon to be resilient. With greater awareness comes a greater ability to choose. Here is a recap of my three keys to resilience. 

Look for the lessons

  • Have the courage to face whatever event is causing you to require resilience. Burying your head in the sand is a terrible strategy. Trust me, I have tried it. 

Accept what is happening

  • There is not always a rational answer to what is happening at any given moment. Sometimes we simply have to accept “what is” to move forward. It’s easy to get stuck trying to rationalize what has happened. Often this can be an exercise in futility and a complete waste of energy that can be spent better elsewhere. 

Let your feelings find expression

  • Acknowledging the feelings that come with adversity is a crucial ingredient to resilience. The mantra, “What we resist, persists” is one that I use to remind myself of this. When you stop burying, suppressing or avoiding those nasty feelings and allow yourself to experience what is coming up, you will find that those negative feelings dissipate a little quicker. 
  • Another truism that I really like is what I believe is a Buddhist formula of ‘Suffering = Pain x Resistance’. The more we resist pain, the more we suffer because of it.

The beautiful thing about resilience is that it is a skill that can be developed and honed over time. There are many tools and practices that we can employ to increase our resiliency. I hope that these three ‘lessons’ will get you started.

Guest Author:

Mike Cameron is a passionate family man, entrepreneur, speaker and writer. He enjoys writing and sharing ideas and inspiring others to find the best in themselves.


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