‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life. This is part 9, the final part, being resilient in your family.
Few human beings manage to completely avoid feelings of anger, sadness, hopelessness, pointlessness, or overwhelm. Many people experience these feelings a lot, especially when their family life is difficult. At any given moment in a troubled family, one family member may have lost hope about real change being possible, a second may be experiencing deep fatigue, and a third may be engaged in some self-destructive behavior, acting out the family’s difficulties by getting drunk or driving recklessly. If you are burdened by feelings of this sort or find yourself acting in ways that harm you, you need to manifest those qualities that we’ve been discussing—strength, bravery, and so on—and also manifest one that we’ll be discussing in this chapter: resilience.
Resilience is the willingness and the ability to bounce back. It is as much the willingness as the ability. It is altogether common for people to make a decision somewhere just out of conscious awareness that they really don’t want to bounce back, that because in their estimation they’ve been treated unfairly by life that they therefore will stubbornly stay in some dark, angry, injured place. Rather than deciding to bounce back with renewed energy and renewed hope, rather than opting to surrender to some less-than-ideal changed circumstances, they pull up the drawbridge and adopt a siege mentality. Being adamant when that adamancy amounts to self-harm is not a sign of strength; and being resilient, even if that resilience involves some humbling surrender, is not a sign of weakness.
Take the following example of an obstinacy that is the opposite of resilience. A client of mine, a writer who felt that his editor had rudely criticized the manuscript he turned in to her, refused to make the changes she demanded, changes that he himself felt might improve the book, on the principle that she had delivered her criticisms in too highhanded a fashion. He wouldn’t make a single change—costing himself and his family a large amount of the advance money he was due to receive, money that they were bound to miss. He dug in his heels; as she threatened to do, the editor canceled the book contract; and soon thereafter my client had to hit the pavement looking for a day job to make up for that lost income. People dig in their heels—and dig themselves holes—just like this with quite amazing regularity.
Resilience is the ability—and the willingness—to shake off slights, to shake off insults, to shake off criticism, to shake off regrets, all for the sake of moving forward and living well.
If you are in fact willing to practice resilience, to bounce back, and to not dig in your heels in a dark place, the following is a simple thing to try. Take any feeling that is burdening you—say, hopelessness—and enact a ceremony to, in this instance, “bring back hope.” The very act of engaging in such a ceremony is an act of resilience and signals your willingness and desire to come back to life.
What sort of ceremony might you enact? You might make a batch of “hope” cookies and, as you prepare the batter, say or think, “I have hope.” You might plant a “hope” garden and, as you water it, say or think, “I have hope.” You might create a “hope” altar and, as you pay it your daily visit, say or think, “I have hope.” Hope is the sort of thing that we can regularly lose—and also the sort of thing that we can recover as part of our “resilience program.” Manifest your resilience by creating a different ceremony of healing for each of those tangled feelings—hopelessness, pointlessness, anger, boredom, worry—that weave together into your darkest moods.
You might also try the following. Think through what music suggests resilience and victory to you (like, perhaps, the theme from the movie “Rocky”). Make whatever music suggests resilience and victory to you your theme song. Listen to it when you wake up, to start your day positively and powerfully; listen to it midday, to give yourself a boost when that afternoon slump hits; listen to it before you go to sleep, to put yourself in the right frame of mind for a good night’s sleep. You might also listen to it before a difficult interaction, whenever you feel defeated, or as a way to motivate you to make some necessary change.
Say that the following is currently the chief source of difficulty in your family life. You want to move to a less expensive part of the country so that you can quit your day job and live more simply and more happily. You want a better quality of life and you can picture how you can have it. However your husband, who has many objections to moving, refuses to have a real conversation with you about the subject. When you try to bring it up he makes a face and leaves the room. Frustrated, angry, and resentful, you find that you are avoiding him—just as he is avoiding you.
It takes resilience to try once again to have that conversation—and to try once again—and to try once again. It takes resilience not to throw in the towel or throw up your hands but instead to concoct some plan that just might possibly move your agenda forward. Might he be willing to spend a weekend in the new locale you have in mind? Might he be willing to listen to your arguments for moving if he heard them from your adult son or daughter? Might it help to point out all the golf courses or fishing streams he might get to enjoy if you moved?
All of these are reasonable ploys—but we tend not to try them because we internally say, “The heck with him and his attitude!” The better bet is to keep bouncing back, like a fighter who keeps getting off the ropes, so that you retain the chance to realize your dreams. Engage in your ceremony of hope; play your victory music; and return to the fray!