Developing resilience and preparing for adversity
Grit. Resilience. Mental toughness. Growth mindsets. We often hear these terms used a lot in and out of educational contexts. The key element in this is learning how to reframe failure, and building mental capacity, or the opportunity to practice resilience.
Reducing the effects of significant adversity on our lives is essential to the progress and prosperity of any society. Science tells us that some individuals develop resilience, or the ability to overcome serious hardship, while others do not. Understanding why some individuals do well despite adverse early experiences is crucial, because it can inform more effective policies and programs that help us reach our full potential.
One way to understand the development of resilience is to visualize a balancing scale or seesaw. Protective experiences and coping skills on one side counterbalance significant adversity on the other. Resilience is evident when your health and development tips toward positive outcomes. This is even as stress and other adverse factors stack up on the negative side.
How to develop resilience
Building mental toughness, and the ability to stand up to adversity is primarily based on cognitive activities or psychological tools. Many of these are rooted in stoicism.
Many of the readings in stoic philosophy ask that we consider our relationships with others and society in general.
An example is the following reflection from Meditations, 4.49 from Marcus Aurelius:
Be like the headland, on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm, while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’
In this piece, I believe that Marcus Aurelius is reminding us that we can be prepared for the future, while not remaining consumed by what “might” happen.
To achieve this, I think it is helpful to focus on two things. First, I strive to keep an objective accounting of events and goals in life. Second, I work to make a decision not to suffer in dealing with these events.
An objective focus on life
First, developing an objective, as opposed to subjective description of events in our lives. This means that we strive to describe and understand events in our lives in a “neutral” fashion without adding an emotional charges to circumstances.
In Meditations, Book 6, Marcus Aurelius explains the need to examine and simplify events in our lives without injecting emotion into the anaylsis:
When we have meat before us and such eatables we receive the impression, that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian (wine) is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are. Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things which appear most worthy of our approbation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.
Epictetus explains how this over-analysis and subjective description of daily events usually leads to troubles (Enchiridion 5):
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.
Suffering is a choice
The second thing that I focus on when thinking about the future and preparing for adversity is that the world is full of positive and negative emotions and energy. We can choose whether or not we add these values and judgements to our lives. We can also decide whether we want to suffer.
The external circumstances of the world present us with opportunities to think about, and in most cases worry about things in the past and future. These thoughts about events which may have happened, or are yet to be cause us to suffer. As always, our thoughts are up to us to control.
Marcus Aurelius indicates in Meditations, Book 11:
Anger and frustration hurt us more than the things we are annoyed about hurt us.
Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Book 11) furthers this thinking by indicating that it is often times our viewpoint or perspective about an issue that causes us to feel pain and suffer when we think about it. Just by believing that an event or action is “insulting” we add value judgements to the event and decide to suffer.
Make a decision to quit thinking of things as insluting, and your anger immediately disappears.
In this we can decide whether or not to add value judgements to events in the past or future. We often cannot choose what the world throws at us, but we can make decisions about how to respond to it.