What would you do if you lost a loved one, survived a natural disaster, re-located to a state nowhere near your family and friends, and decided to start divorce proceedings - all in the same year? Not many of us will have to face all of those life challenges, let alone face them in a 12-month period, but that is exactly what happened to Gazelle. She discovered what she was truly made of five years ago, when in the span of one year her father passed away, her family re-located to Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home, and she decided to get divorced.
While there is much that can be written about resilience under any of these circumstances, I decided to focus this story on Gazelle's response to Hurricane Katrina. At the time, Gazelle's husband was in the Navy, and he had been deployed overseas shortly before Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf Coast. When news broke of an impending hurricane, Gazelle, like so many others, wondered whether to stay or whether to go. Once she fully understood the seriousness of the situation, she knew she had to leave, but with no family in the area, her options were limited. I asked her, "Where does a person go when they have nowhere to go?" She happened to remember driving through Newnan, Georgia several months earlier; so, with nothing more than the clothes on their back and the money in their pockets, Gazelle and her daughters fled their ocean front apartment complex in Mississippi and drove to Newnan.
"Toto, We're Not in Kansas Anymore..."
Upon arriving in this brand new town, Gazelle knew she had to focus on the basics - food, water, and shelter. After staying in a hotel for a couple of days, she was able to put down a security deposit on an apartment, a deposit that was exactly $1.25 less than what he had in the bank. Just over a week after arriving in Georgia, Gazelle's daughters were enrolled in and attending school. Months later, and after hundreds of trips back and forth to local stores, they had finally established a home. There was nothing to go back to in Mississippi - their apartment complex was completely destroyed, so they stayed in Newnan. She found a job for exactly as long as it took her to save the money she needed to restart her business as a virtual administrative assistant. During this time of nothing, Gazelle and her daughters still made it a point to give to others. As Gazelle said, "There is always someone worse off than you, so choose to be grateful and content where you are."
The Lessons and the Blessings
Gazelle admits that the hurricane became the blessing and the open door that she had been praying for. Had the hurricane not hit, Gazelle is unsure about what her life would look like today. She was on the verge of making some important life decisions, and the hurricane was the push she needed. Even though Hurricane Katrina took a great deal from Gazelle, it gave her many lessons. She put herself back on her to-do list. She started saying no to things that didn't support her life purpose. She now knows that she has a choice about how to look at life and all that comes with it. Gazelle saved her best insight for the end of our conversation. She said "perseverance builds character, character builds hope, and hope doesn't disappoint."
According to researchers, there are two main pieces to the resilience puzzle. The first is recovery - how well a person bounces back and fully recovers from a challenge; and the second is sustainability - a person's capacity to continue moving forward (2010). As Gazelle's story illustrates, her ability to bounce back was amazing - she regained her equilibrium so quickly that she had the foresight to get her kids into school within a week of moving to a new city; but, she also sustained that progress. She made a new home for her family, got a job, and then moved forward with plans to re-start her business. One study says this: "Individual resilience may be defined by the amount of stress that a person can endure without a fundamental change in capacity to pursue aims that give life meaning. The greater a person's capacity to stay on a satisfying life course, the greater his or her resilience" (Zautra, Hall, & Murray, 2010, p. 6).
Do you agree?
Zautra, A.J., Hall, J.S., & Murray, K.E. (2010). Resilience: A new definition of health for people and communities. In J.W. Reich, A.J. Zautra, & J.S. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of Adult Resilience (pp. 3-29). New York: The Guilford Press.