Your Personal Renaissance

Life's true calling

How Resilient Are You?

Why some people thrive in the face of adversity

At first glance, these two people seem doomed to failure.

He was born in poverty. When his mother died, he dropped out of school to work. He taught himself to read, worked at a series of jobs, and opened a general store with a friend. But his friend was an alcoholic who died, leaving him so deeply in debt he had to auction off all his possessions. He studied law, began practicing, ran for Congress, lost, was elected, then voted out of office. He ran for the Senate, but was defeated twice in a row. Elected president of the United States in 1860, Abraham Lincoln rose above adversity to become one of our nation’s greatest leaders.

She was raised in a dysfunctional family. Her mother rejected her, ridiculing her as “ugly.” Her father was an unstable alcoholic. Both parents died by the time she was 10, so she went to live with her maternal grandmother and two alcoholic uncles. At 15, she went away to high school, where a wise teacher recognized and nurtured her strengths. She married a distant cousin, who was later disabled by polio, yet became one of our greatest presidents. Throughout her life, Eleanor Roosevelt persevered, writing, teaching, working ardently for social justice, and after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, served as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What makes such a difference in some people’s lives? What moves them to transcend adversity, embrace a meaningful identity, and become beacons of hope? Stronger than genetics, external conditions, socio-economic status, or education, it is a power deep within us. The Renaissance called it free will: our power to choose and thereby create our own destiny. Smith and Werner’s (1982) landmark study of at risk children in Hawaii who defied the odds called it “resilience”—the ability to thrive despite adversity. While many of their peers developed ill health, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities, the resilient children, who had at least one positive adult role model, grew up with hope and perseverance, learning to see obstacles as challenges (Karren, Smith, & Gordon, 2014, p. 90; Smith &Werner, 1982).

Resilient people don’t give up or give in. They look forward, neither dwelling on the past nor blaming others. Instead of complaining, they ask “What can I do about it?”

In their new book, Supersurvivors (2014) David Feldman and Lee Kravetz offer dramatic accounts of men and women who’ve overcome traumatic experiences to become even stronger, more hopeful, more successful than before. Models of resilience, they demonstrate the remarkable potential of the human spirit.

How resilient are you? You can mobilize your own resilient assets by focusing on mentors and role models, connecting with your own sources of hope and inspiration, and taking positive action, one step at a time.

References

Feldman, D. B. & Kravetz, L. D. (2014). Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link between Suffering and Success. New York, NY: HarperCollins. For more information on the book see http://www.supersurvivors.com/ or http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/supersurvivors-david-b-feldman/1117136191?ean=9780062267856

Karren, K. J., Smith, N. L., & Gordon, K. J. (2014). Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions, and Relationships. (5th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Werner, E. E. & Smith, R. S. (1982). Vulnerable but Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth. New York, NY : McGraw-Hill.  

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Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Follow Diane on Twitter: Diane Dreher (@dianedreher) on Twitter

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Diane Dreher, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor of English at Santa Clara University. where she serves as associate director of the Spirituality and Health Institute.

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