The rubber band is often used as the metaphor for resilience. It indicates that once pushed beyond what you can handle, with resilience, you eventually bounce back to where you are. But is bouncing back the right metaphor? Will anything ever be the same for the miners who were trapped in the Chilean mines? Or for those devastated by recent events in Japan? Inspiring stories like, "Chilean miners provide lesson in resilience", "Japan victims show resilience in Earthquake and Tsunami," are both horrifying and inspiring. But I doubt if they will go back to where they were. Sociologist Phyllis Moen and others, writing in the book, New Frontiers in Resilient Aging (2010) suggest that some will return to a much less favorable state, others like it was, but others will move forward and "sway the direction of their biographies, (p. 286)."

But what about most of us facing less dramatic circumstances? Will we be able to show resilience in the face of a major-or even minor-crisis? We will all face circumstances, challenges, and opportunities requiring flexibility. Sam, a retired as vice-president of a trade association, illustrates someone who hit a detour in his life plan but bounced forward.

As a result of his interest in combining his business experience with coaching, and in preparation for retirement, he returned to school and obtained a PhD in counseling. His retirement plan was complete⎯to develop a web site to serve baby boomers by providing information on issues concerning them such as health, new careers and financial news. On the day he retired, Sam felt totally prepared, knowing that he was going to develop a business plan, secure a board of directors, and identify some sponsors to fund the project. While Sam was developing the project, he discovered a similar web site that had just gone on line. Someone had beaten him to the punch. He had a series of reactions. His first thought was, "This is terrible. I have spent the last few years on a fool's errand. Now what?" After some reflection, he felt relief that "now I don't have to raise the ten million dollars necessary to get the project off the ground." Then, considering the thought and effort he'd already put into the project, he asked himself, "Where is the white space in the project that beat me? What can I do that is not covered in the existing project?" At first, Sam was not sure what form his modified project would take, but he said, "Rest assured, it will happen."

There are some guidelines we can follow when faced with a challenge that seems to block our moving forward. Back to the chapter, "Risk, resilience, and life-course fit: older couples' encores following job loss," the authors found that those resilient couples found an encore, "a new lifestyle rather than recovery to the pre-loss status quo (p. 285)." To get to the "encore" period, there are ways to think about the setback. Ask yourself:

  • Can I change the devastating situation? Often the answer is no.
  • But can I redefine the situation as Sam did? And in many cases, the answer is yes.
  • Can I start using stress-reducing strategies like deep breathing, exercising, meditating. And those strategies are available for everyone.
  • And can I strengthen and broaden my social connections? This is important because these ties provide support and new perspectives.

Sam did exactly what experts suggest: He demonstrated resilience by putting a major defeat into broader perspective, strategizing about ways to make this work for him, and developing a process for taking action and moving forward, and contacted many people as he decided what to do next.

It might be true that resilience is an inborn trait. But for those of us who need it and might not have it, it is comforting to know there are some strategies we can use to become more resilient.

Nancy K. Schlossberg
Author, Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose
Copyright 2011

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