Start with the basics. In times of stress, begin with making sure you are eating healthy food, staying hydrated, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and exercising moderately to keep your body balanced. This may sound obvious, but there is a common misconception that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the solution needs to be. Simple self-care — while it may seem inadequate — is an essential first step. Otherwise, we’re exhausted and have impaired ability to respond to whatever comes next.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Conditions are not easy right now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop stronger resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Gorter, MSW, LCSW.
Jeff Gorter, MSW, LCSW, is Vice President of Crisis Response Services at R3 Continuum. Gorter brings more than 30 years of clinical experience including consultation and extensive on-site critical incident response to businesses and communities. He has responded directly to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, the Newtown Tragedy, the Orlando Pulse Nightclub Shooting and the Las Vegas Shooting.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
My current role is vice president of crisis response services at R3 Continuum, a leading behavioral health company. I have more than 35 years of clinical experience, which includes consultation and extensive on-site critical incident response to businesses and communities in both public and private settings, as well as hospitals and community organizations.
My work has taken me to many mass disasters and tragedies, responding directly to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, the Newtown tragedy, Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas shooting, and the events at the US Capitol on January 6.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
R3 Continuum was asked to respond to the 2017 Route 91 Harvest mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. To meet the huge number of requests for support from this tragedy, R3c identified, transported, housed, and organized over 90 specially trained mental health providers, including myself, each one being deployed to various businesses trying to cope with the enormity of this horrific act of violence. One of the groups I worked with was a headliner music show at a major casino, as they were slated to be the first show to “go live” and return to operation some days after the event. The music industry being a very close community, many of the victims were known to this show’s cast. As I spoke with the musicians and stage crew, they wrestled with understandable questions: “Should we go live yet? When would we ever feel like it was the ‘right time’? Can we even do this?” During our conversations, I witnessed an incredible transformation as they came to the conclusion that music is a celebration of life, and now, more than ever, it was needed by their city. They believed that taking the stage was taking a stand against the darkness, against the pain that surrounded them at that moment. Later that evening, I was invited to the opening show and was amazed at the power, passion and resilience poured into that performance. I witnessed once again the incredible capacity of the human spirit to rise to the occasion…and even rise above it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’ve been with this organization for 18 years and in the course of that time, have personally responded to 14 mass disasters both nationally and internationally. In addition, R3 Continuum (R3c) provides, psychological first aid and resilient support to businesses more than 2,500 times per month for events on a smaller scale, but no less impactful to the organization involved. For example, we frequently respond to bank robberies, factory accidents or the unexpected death of a coworker from a heart attack or an automobile accident. What impresses me most about R3c is that even in the face of that volume and scope, we never lose sight of the “one” — that one employee who might be going through perhaps the worst day of their life, that one work group that is reeling and wondering, “how do we go forward from here?”. Being able to walk alongside that individual or group and perhaps take a little of that burden off their shoulders is a day well spent.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My first mass disaster response was in New York City, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I was in private practice at the time, and my friend and colleague Bob VandePol had just recently joined the organization at which I am currently employed. Knowing vaguely that this new company was involved in trauma response, I called Bob and asked if there was anything I could do to help, as I am trained in psychological first aid. He asked, “Can you be on a plane in four hours?” and I joined his response team deploying to New York. During that event I witnessed true leadership as Bob directed scores of counselors providing service across the city, all while trying to navigate the operational and infrastructure challenges inherent to entering a disaster zone. Bob’s compassion and determination in the midst of a singularly impactful tragedy has always served as an example to me as I’ve responded to subsequent disasters.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is a combination of aptitude, attitude, and lived experience. While research suggests that all humans fall naturally along a continuum of low to high resilience, it can be learned and strengthened. One of the central aspects of highly resilient individuals is a strong “locus of control” — that is, the belief that you have some agency in a situation and can make choices towards a desired outcome. To be clear, it’s not the situation itself that we control, but our response to the situation that matters. Most of the time we can’t do anything to make the situation “go away,” but If I believe I can take even tiny steps forward on my own behalf, or the behalf of my coworkers, family, community…research supports that I am much more likely to rebound effectively and recover quicker.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
I really like the quote from motivational speaker Michael Kelly who said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to move beyond fear.”
Courage is something you can learn about, you can train for, you can set your sights on and strive for. At the end of the day, courage is not that one didn’t feel fear, but that one moved ahead despite fear. Comparing that to resilience: Courage is what you feel in a moment of great challenge and in rising to it, whereas resilience is the ability to adapt to that challenge. More than a momentary triumph, resilience is making significant choices to adapt to the adversity, the fear, the challenge, and charting a course forward. In its simplest form, courage is responding to the moment, and resilience is growing from that moment.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Even back in my college days years ago, I was inspired by the example of Nelson Mandela — an individual who was not only resilient in the face of his personal challenges but took on a deeply entrenched system. Even during times of imprisonment, times of physical abuse and torture, he never lost sight of the end goal: the transformation of his country. What most inspired me about his example is that when he achieved the goal, when he was inaugurated as president of South Africa, he did not give in to an impulse for revenge or payback or discrimination; instead, he instituted a system that was more interested in truth and reconciliation. Given all that he suffered, it was amazing that his response was forgiveness and a desire to restore community for all South Africans.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I’m not thinking of a person, but of a time it seemed the universe conspired to make a goal impossible. Following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, our company was activated to provide support, and I committed to arrive on campus the next morning to meet with leadership and coordinate our response. To meet that timeframe, I needed to fly out that afternoon, and flight and travel arrangements all seemed feasible. Upon boarding our first flight, we then sat on the tarmac for two hours due to mechanical issues, but we were confident we could still make our connecting flight. We arrived just in time to see our plane backing away from the gate, requiring us to re-route on a later flight to Richmond: a four-hour drive to the VT campus, but still doable with the rental car we had arranged. Landing in Richmond, we discovered the rental desk to be closed as the representative had called in sick, and our luggage was also missing. A $900 cab ride through the night found us arriving 10 minutes before the scheduled 7 a.m. meeting, disheveled but ready to serve. While travel mishaps were infinitesimally inconsequential compared with the event we were responding to, it served to strengthen our resolve and anchor us in humility.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
About 14 years ago I was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS). I experienced an initial breakthrough where I went numb from mid-torso down through my feet. While I didn’t lose ambulatory control, I lost most tactile sensation. Eventually, over time, and with the appropriate medication, that episode was resolved, and I regained roughly 80% of the feeling in my lower extremity. That experience reminded me that every day is a precious gift, and it’s up to me to celebrate, enjoy and maximize that gift. As an example, this past summer, I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It’s an ancient pilgrimage route that originated in the 800 A.D.’s. During that pilgrimage, I walked 240 miles in 14 days. I had previously lived with a Spanish family during a college semester and have always wanted to go back to the place that was so formative for me. This year was the perfect opportunity. It was the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and as I’ve shared earlier, that was an event that made a significant mark on my career and the beginning of 20 years of mass disaster response. This pilgrimage was a mini sabbatical for me, a time of reflection and celebration, a time to “cleanse the emotional palette”. I viewed it as my own expression of resilience — my own resistance to the idea that MS was going to define me. To the contrary, it spurs me on to do even more.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Throughout my life, I’ve always been guided by three things: faith, family and friends. I believe that any resiliency, success or support I’ve experienced does not originate in and of myself, but has its source in those around me.
My faith has been central to keeping me grounded, giving me a perspective that, “it ain’t all about me.” There’s a larger world out there. I am but a part of it, which makes my goal, “how can I contribute to the betterment of others through that perspective?”.
I grew up in Chicago in the Cicero neighborhood. At that time, Cicero was a struggling blue-collar, lower socioeconomic area known for two things: 1.) it’s gangs, and 2.) a tenacious clinging to white supremacy. There were literally white Nazi’s living in my neighborhood. All of that to say, it presented me with a clear visceral choice growing up: do I subscribe to the hate and join the despair, or do I direct my energies and focus on something higher, more sustaining, more aligned with love and respect? Choosing the latter has defined my life and career.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Start with the basics. In times of stress, begin with making sure you are eating healthy food, staying hydrated, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and exercising moderately to keep your body balanced. This may sound obvious, but there is a common misconception that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the solution needs to be. Simple self-care — while it may seem inadequate — is an essential first step. Otherwise, we’re exhausted and have impaired ability to respond to whatever comes next.
- Presence. By that, I mean staying mindful of your own presentation to others. If I present to those around me as panicked, fearful, or angry, why would I expect them to respond any other way? Making sure that I am beginning with a moment of self-examination, self-reflection; asking myself, “how do I want to respond to this?” guides my next steps.
- Patience. Be gentle with yourself and remember that what you are facing is an unexpected challenge. I must be patient and give myself a little bit of grace — remind myself that no one has a simple, easy answer to what I may be going through and I need to keep moving forward step by step. This is closely aligned with being patient with others around you and assuming good intent. This particularly tricky when I’m under stress. I often want to find something or someone to blame, to focus my negative attention on. If I’m patient with those around me and celebrate the small victories, we’re all able to move forward together.
- Purpose. Recognize the value of your role or contributions to the mission at hand. There is surprising power in purpose. It’s important to understand that what I’m facing right now is a challenge and looking beyond the immediate discomfort lets me see the overarching value of what I’m trying to accomplish. This mentality sustains me and pulls me toward that goal. That larger perspective is the antidote to the “tunnel vision” that a crisis often provokes, where the crisis is all I can focus on.
- Perseverance. Resilience is often about running the marathon rather than racing the sprint. As a result, I need to set my pace accordingly and recognize that the goal is management, not immediate resolution, progress not perfection. Those in recovery communities will recognize what’s called the Serenity Prayer which says,” Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Directing my energies to controlling what I can control, letting go of the rest, and moving forward one step at a time is the very heart of resilience.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to crowdsource resilience — no one individual has a corner on resilience, and there is no “prescribed FDA-approved” resilience approach that everyone must follow. Rather, each one of us has strength, inspiration, ideas, techniques and strategies that can also be beneficial to someone else. If we could create a meaningful platform or warehouse where resilience and encouraging ideas were freely shared, I think that could be well-received. While current social media platforms could do some of this, too often it devolves into polarized bickering or blatant self-promotion. Perhaps a curated community committed to resilience may fit what we need right now. And quite frankly, I’d like some new ideas for my own journey as well!
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
I would say President Obama and, surprisingly, not necessarily for political accomplishments or policy achievements. I’ve always been inspired by his role during his presidency as “Consoler in Chief.” There were many shootings and mass disasters during his presidency, and he exhibited an incredible ability to inspire both compassion and competence for those who endured the trauma.
One key example was the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, when nine individuals simply attending a Bible study were shot dead by a white supremist-inspired assailant. If you recall the memorial service, following his comforting words, Obama broke into an acapella version of the song “Amazing Grace.” Whether that was spontaneous or planned doesn’t matter; it unified that community. It demonstrated his compassion while pointing toward healing and perseverance in the face of hate. I would love to talk further about how he so often demonstrated resilience in the face of tragedy.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow my work at R3 Continuum’s website at www.r3c.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!