Resilience: Roll with the punches
In a world where change is the only certainty, the quality that will stand us in good stead is resilience, which is the capacity to spring back twice as good as new each time life knocks us down. Suma Varughese explores the concept and offers a spectrum of strategies to build it up.
Let’s start with some stories, because everyone loves stories. Besides, we learn best from our fellow human beings. When we know that someone has done something, then that begins to be possible for us too. Remember Roger Bannister? Once he broke the four-minute mile barrier on May 6, 1954, it only took another month and a half for John Landry to break the same barrier and Roger Bannister’s record.
Paramjeet Singh was a successful Delhi businessman and at one point the sole distributor of Rasna (a soft drink). He had a big godown in Lajpat Nagar and seven–eight autos to deliver Rasna all over Delhi. Then the 1984 riots in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi broke out, and he lost his godown, his fleet of autos, and his dealership. No matter how hard he tried for another dealership, it eluded him. He restarted life by buying a taxi and driving it, always in a crisp white uniform and with a pleasant deportment. All went well for a few years, but while coming down from Mussoorie, he had a terrible accident that put him in a coma for 13 days. He woke up in a Dehradun hospital with knees, rib cage, and one hand crushed.
Later, at Safdarjung Hospital, doctors rebuilt him over three months, with another three and a half months of physiotherapy and exercises. He was up again, but the taxi was destroyed. He bought an auto, but a few years later, he had a stroke. It took time but he recovered fully. Today, he drives an auto with a smile on his face and never refuses a passenger.
Now this may not read like a success story because he has been getting progressively poorer, but in the eyes of God, it would surely qualify because his spirit has been getting progressively richer. He has not ended up as an embittered, angry victim. He has retained his humanity, regardless of circumstances. No matter what life did to him, his spirit remained uncrushed.
In the Bible, there is a parallel story about Job. He was a great lover of God, and God rewarded him lavishly with good health, wealth, cattle, and a large and loving family. When God praised Job’s devotion, the jealous Satan asked him to test if it would hold up even in the face of challenges. God agreed, and Job was met with a series of disasters. His family was decimated and so was his cattle. His wealth was completely demolished, and, eventually, his body too was devastated and covered with large sores. Despite the intense suffering, Job never repudiated God. He famously said: “Naked came I from my mother’s womb; naked go I thither. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Eventually, God restored to Job much more than He had taken from him.
What is resilience?
So both these people displayed tremendous resilience when faced with challenges. Is it possible for us to reach such heights? Why not? We too, like them, are human. If they can do it, so can we. Remember this: It is always important to know that we have the same human potential as anyone else. We only have to actualise it.
Let us explore how.
At the heart of the tremendous need for resilience is that we live in a world whose only constant is change. Change is the only thing we can bet on. Nothing and nobody remains the same. Everything and everybody keeps changing. Our bodies change, our cells die and new cells are born, our natures keep changing, and the circumstances in our lives keep changing, mostly without any volition on our part. COVID is the biggest example of this. It has proven to man without any room for doubt that it is not we who run the show. Ultimately, we have nothing in our hands except the present breath and the present moment. This is a hard reality to deal with, and we can only cope with it by cultivating the capacity to roll with the punches and spring back from our setbacks twice as good as new. In other words, by learning to be resilient.
It is always good to begin with definitions. The dictionary defines resilience as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. And as the ability to spring back into shape—elasticity.
Ever since the pandemic first invaded our consciousness in March 2020, imprisoned all of humanity for long stretches of time, destroyed many industries and countless businesses, brought untold suffering, including deaths to millions all over the world, and left its mark on virtually every human being living in these times, the quality that was talked about most was resilience. How do you spring back to shape after the entire world has been flattened? How to recover from the colossal difficulties that the pandemic brought in its wake? Bankruptcy, job loss, loss of health, death of loved ones, the inability to meet loved ones or go out of the house, and the work-from-home syndrome. That is the big question the world is wrestling with presently.
So here is the thing. The level of our resilience depends on our relationship with life. Is our relationship antagonistic or cooperative? Do we believe that life is working for us or against us? If we see life as a hostile force out to get us, then we programme ourselves to resist all that comes our way. If we see it as a benevolent force that has our interests at heart, then even when problems come, we still have faith that life will be on our side, that some good will come out of the situation, and we will be able to get through. And secondly, how do we perceive our size vis-à-vis our problems? Do we see the problem as bigger than us, or do we see ourselves as bigger than the problem? If the problem is bigger, then we will buckle down under its weight. However, if we see ourselves as bigger than the problem, then we will surely triumph over it.
How to cultivate resilience
So how do we calibrate our attitude to life? And how do we increase our inner dimensions? Aah! That is a journey that can take years. For resilience is not a quality that you can spray on or force yourself into. It has to be a part of who you are. Both these capacities depend on so many things. To begin with, on our competence and capabilities, which in turn create our confidence in ourselves and build self-trust and self-reliance. Then there is our value system which tells us what is important to us and what we are willing to do to stand by it. Values give us our moral fibre and shape our character. We also have to factor in our levels of will and determination, our flexibility, intelligence, and creativity. And so many other qualities as well.
The right worldview: Among the most important, though, is our philosophy. Do we have a worldview that supports us in our journey of life? If we can find this, our capacity to achieve resilience will be much easier. Let me share mine. In 1991, I had a massive spiritual awakening that changed everything for me. Among the many insights I received, one was that the purpose of life was to grow as human beings. We were meant to become more patient, competent, sensitive, loving, courageous, compassionate, intelligent, wise, and so on. And I learnt that all the problems and challenges that confronted us were to help us get there. They were the lessons we were meant to learn. Life on Planet Earth was a school, and problems were the curriculum. A delayed train or plane was to help us get patient; dropping a kadai (frying pan) of dal all over the kitchen floor was to help us become more careful; someone being rude to us was to help us develop self-restraint; an illness was to help us take better care of our health; a heartbreak was to help us find our own centre; and so on.
Until I understood this, I was utterly clueless as to how to live life. And I used to think that God or fate was a malevolent force out to trip me up. Naturally, I was always resisting everything that happened to me. I used to see myself as a helpless victim of life, having no control or command over what befell me.
But now, in the light of my new understanding, life stood revealed as a great and benevolent teacher who was always coaxing us, sometimes rapping us, to learn the lessons it wanted us to learn in order for us to be the best we could be. This made me want to cooperate with life instead of resisting. Of course, it took me a long time, and I still have not completely mastered it. When difficult challenges arise, I resist at first, but then the understanding kicks in, and I comply. I usually always ask myself where I have gone wrong that I drew this problem into my experience. Secondly, I strive to learn the lessons I need from this experience. And at the end of the day, I no longer view the problem with bitterness. Instead, I feel grateful because I have learnt so much and grown so much.
I have had my fair share of problems in all areas of life. And this has included some moral crises as well. For instance, somewhere in 1994 while I was editor of Society magazine, I suddenly discovered to my horror that the capitalistic ideal of infinite growth was impossible because we lived on a finite planet. Where would we get the resources from? I envisaged a massive collision between the economy and the environment, and I was deeply concerned. I could no longer reconcile with my job at Society, which was about celebrating the high life and encouraging materialistic excess. So, without having anything on my plate, and with only faith in my intuition which told me I was making the right choice, I resigned. Miraculously, that very night, I got a call from someone who I had met four months earlier, Parveen Chopra, who told me that he was starting a body-mind-spirit magazine in Delhi where he lived and he needed someone in Mumbai. I jumped at the offer. The magazine was Life Positive, and I worked here for 21 years, 12 years as its editor. And I consider myself blessed to have done work that has helped and supported people to heal physically, mentally, and emotionally, and has inspired them to move on to the spiritual path and transform themselves.
By attracting the right healers, I have been able to manage rheumatoid arthritis, bronchial asthma, and IBS. And I looked after my mother when she suffered a paralytic stroke that rendered her speechless and unable to eat, for two and a half years. This much I know about myself, that I am not willing to let anything make me less than I am. And I am committed to constantly striving to become the best version of myself that I can possibly be. Challenges, therefore, are friends on that path, and not foes.
Most scriptures will offer you similar perspectives to enable you to accept your situation. Vedanta, for instance, gives you the concept of prasada buddhi. This means that you learn to view all that God gives you as His prasad (offering). Thus, a tough boss becomes prasad, whose role is to enable you to stretch yourself to excellence. A crow shitting on your head is also prasad. And so is a traffic jam. All the circumstances you are embedded in are the perfect ones to enable you to move to the next step. And the great teachers will tell you to embrace what is. Because that is the reality.
As true as this is, I also understand that it is very, very difficult. You need great strength to be able to look at reality in the face consistently. So what can you do about it? Work incrementally at it. Build up your strength bit by bit so that you can get to a level where you can accept anything and everything that confronts you.
The poor have tremendous resilience. Anyone who has kept a maid will acknowledge that they constantly encounter crises which would have decimated us, but in two days, they regain their composure. I remember that we had hired a carpenter called Nandalal to do some work at our office. One day, Nandalal did not show up at his usual time. We were wondering what had happened when he shambled into the office with his usual grin. It turned out that he had missed the last train going home and the police had picked him up on charges of vagrancy and bunged him into jail. What I could not get out of my mind was the memory of his smile. He was so cool about it. He was completely unperturbed. Which of us would have been like this after a night in jail?
Choose discomfort over comfort: So let’s take a leaf from their book and choose to be a little uncomfortable rather than chase comfort. Take public transport once in a way rather than always travelling by your own vehicle. And by public transport, I mean bus and local train. Climb the staircase rather than take the lift. If the maid does not come, cook a meal instead of ordering in. And do the housework too as we learnt to do during the first lockdown in 2020. Each time you do this, you are building your endurance muscles and increasing your capabilities. And that naturally builds your confidence and, therefore, your resilience.
Consistently strive to not take the easy way out. Learn to take on challenges at work, at home, in relationships, and in health. This too will increase your confidence and enable you to become more comfortable with change.
In the same way that we can learn from the poor, the West can learn from us. We are much more adaptive and flexible because our lives are so much more uncertain. Unlike in the West where trains run on time and everything is managed efficiently, anything can go wrong here. Roads and bridges can collapse, floods can completely paralyse our travel, and traffic can throttle our roads. Since we do not expect things to go our way all the time, we are much more comfortable with change, problems, and difficulties. So much the better for us, wouldn’t you say?
Identify your resilience heroes within your families: Look at your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, second cousins, grandparents, and travel down the lineage until you find someone who truly was an inspiration of resilience. Adopt them as your hero, study their story, study their personality, and inspire yourself. Remind yourself all the time that you too have the same genes inside you and, therefore, come from resilient stock. My mother is my hero. When she was over 60, my father had started a small-scale company making precision tools. The company did not do well, and money was scarce. My dauntless mother would walk all the way to the market, which was about three miles away, and walk all the way back, carrying as much as five kilos of groceries, fruits, and vegetables. I use this incident to remind myself that I am made of hardy stock. Although I take more taxis and autos than I used to (at 64, I consider it is okay to cut myself some slack), I have always striven to travel by public transport, even while editor of the upmarket Society magazine. I recall that I had invited a friend to accompany me to a splashy press conference to be held at the Taj Mahal hotel. The Society office was at Prabhadevi, and I started walking towards the bus stop. My friend plaintively asked me why I was not taking a taxi since I was going on official work. I told her I did not want to get soft.
Do something new every day: See if you can do something for the first time every single day or as many times as you can manage it. Simple ones count: trying on a new haircut or a new outfit, cooking a new dish or taking a new route to go to work, saying hello to a stranger or learning a new game, buying or banking online for the first time, and so on. Doing something new expands us and stops us from being stuck in a rut. It also builds up our confidence, enthusiasm, and zest for life. The more of a rut we are in, the more difficult we will find to embrace change. And the more threatening it will appear.
Embrace life: The more we embrace life, the more life we will have. Nurture life, even if it is only a plant or the maintenance of your home, have a pet, help out at an orphanage or an old folks home, join an NGO, bring up your kids, be a caregiver to your parents, befriend strangers (benevolent ones), go where life is rampant such as bazaars and slums, spend time in nature, and you will find that your life force will increase. The more it increases, the more resilient you will be. For the life force will give us more juice, more happiness, more energy, more enthusiasm, more love, and more nurturing power. I have noticed that schoolteachers, gardeners, and others who nurture life are usually the happiest of people. Rarely do you find them burdened by life’s problems because spending time with children or plants makes them happy and helps them forget their difficulties. I should know. I have three sisters who were teachers, and all of them loved their profession, were exceptionally good at it, and found in it a source of strength.
Focus on what works and not on what does not: Instead of all that is awful about a situation, can you look at what is right about it? My uncle’s family (which used to live in the next wing of my building) once went for a wedding, and all of them were stricken with food poisoning. This included my aunt, uncle, their daughter-in-law, and her daughter. Only their son, Suku, escaped because he had not gone to the wedding. Except for my uncle, all the others were rushed to various hospitals. I was aghast and hastened over. My uncle, though wan, was very composed. “God’s grace is with us,” he told me, “because Suku is all right and can look after us.” That was a fairly narrow silver lining when four out of five were in danger of their lives, but trust my uncle to find it. Helen Keller said, “Look at the sun and you will not see the shadow.” Keep looking at the opportunities in the challenge and the magnitude of the challenge will not daunt you.
Use everything life sends you to grow from: Life is our biggest teacher. And it will never give up on us. Have you seen that if you have not learnt from a situation, it will repeat itself? You might decide to leave a job because of your controlling boss and find yourself with an even more controlling one. Or you might end your relationship with your significant other because of their spendthrift ways and find someone even more high-maintenance. Why does this happen? Because life wants us to learn to cope with the controlling boss and the spendthrift other, not to run and find another job or sweetheart. Only when you can grow assertive enough to establish your boundaries with your boss or firm enough with the other’s spending ways will you be deemed to have transcended the situation, and then that problem will no longer arise.
Celebrate your successes and go easy on your failures: Similarly, rejoice in your strengths and don’t pay too much attention to your weaknesses. Really go to town when you have done something you are proud of. It could be an achievement. It could be cultivating a new habit or kicking a bad one. It could be developing a quality like generosity. Appreciate yourself fully for it. Write about it in your journal. Share with a few close members of the family. And when you have failed at something, forgive yourself for it, learn what lessons you can, and let it go. Most of us do the reverse. Our failures haunt us. We can never seem to reconcile to them, and they remain like a wound on our psyche that is always painful. When successes come, we rejoice, but soon forget them when the next problem presents itself. This is why we evaluate ourselves by our failures and not our successes, and find it so hard to build our confidence levels. I have been a champion self-critic. It was my favourite sport. Only now am I learning to accept my mistakes and my weaknesses. Similarly, when you prioritise your strengths and benevolently release your concern over your weaknesses, your strengths grow and your weaknesses dwindle.
Cultivate faith in the Universe: Now you may be an atheist or an agnostic. But no matter what you are, you need to admit that there is a force that runs the Universe as well as our human body and keeps the stars from colliding with each other. Who causes us to breathe, digest our food, or convert it into blood? Have faith in that force. It will help you. Life will seem less chaotic and random, and it will be easier to find meaning when we believe that there is something or someone who is behind the creation and maintenance of the world. You will then find it easier to trust in the processes of life and to hang in there when life seems difficult. And if by chance, you can cultivate a relationship with the Divine, you will find in it an unbeatable source of strength, support, and comfort. Your faith in the Divine will strengthen you and enable you to pour out your troubles to the Lord. Above all, the closer you get to the Divine, the more you feel Her presence and Her love. Recently, on my birthday, I told God, “I want to see a rainbow in the sky, and a parrot should come to my window.” I didn’t get the rainbow, but at 7.30 a.m., while I was sitting by my bedroom window, a parrot seated itself on the grill about a foot from where I sat and began to squawk in the most conversational tone possible. I felt sure it was bearing me greetings from the Divine. How pampered I felt!
May your resilience grow with every step of your life journey. And may it support you to handle all that comes your way with ease and grace.
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