Towards the end of December, it has become a tradition for major wordsmiths to choose one word that sums up the shared experiences of the year. After Collins Dictionary unveiled its chosen word of the year: lockdown—“the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction and access to public spaces”—I ran across a post by Thrive Global founder and CEO Arianna Huffington. The article titled, “And the Word of the Year Is ... Resilience,” was a reaction to word picks by Collins Dictionary and other outlets such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford English Dictionary, who chose other predestined words such as pandemic, quarantine, doomscrolling, coronavirus.
In her post, Huffington disagreed with the word choices, insisting that resilience is what allows us not just to bounce back but bounce forward: “There is a single word that sums up 2020 and does encapsulate, in a deeper sense, the shared experience of billions of people this year,” Huffington said. “That word is resilience. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as 'the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.' It’s that quality that allows us to overcome challenges, obstacles, hardship, and adversity, instead of being defeated by them. The reason resilience is my word of the year is because, unlike quarantine and coronavirus and social distancing, resilience is the only one that’s going to be just as relevant when the pandemic is over. Resilience is the quality that was summoned in us by all the challenges of 2020. And it’s also the quality that’s going to carry us forward into 2021.”
What’s the Big Deal About a Word?
Some people might ask, “What’s the big deal about a word?” But words carry tremendous power. They guide our thoughts and emotions and can bring us hope or despair, especially as billions of people across the globe try to make sense out of and move beyond deep pandemic grief and compromised mental health.
The American Psychological Association’s "Stress in America" report found that nearly 8 in 10 adults say the pandemic is a major source of stress, and 60% are overwhelmed by the issues currently facing America. Suspected overdoses went up 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May. According to a recent CDC report, 41% of Americans have struggled with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse related to the pandemic. These are depressing numbers, but it’s important to remember that, though our need for resilience is endless, so is our human capacity for it.
The Key to Unlocking Resilience in 2021
I agree with Huffington. The chosen word this year has more potential power than ever before. Given the challenges of 2020, it’s not hard to see the urgent need this year for resilience. And I’m adding resilience as my word choice for both 2020 and 2021. Why?
First of all, the workforce and everyone on the planet needs resilience to move beyond the mental health challenges the pandemic dealt. Secondly, many of the ironclad chosen words—such as lockdown, pandemic or coronavirus—fall flat, reflecting the limits of human compassion known as “psychic numbing;” whereas, resilience has the ring of hope, optimism and rebirth. Thirdly, resilience holds more openness to future growth and possibilities than some of the other closed-ended words, which pretty much connote a negative, dead-end street.
A Fork in the Road
Huffington’s daughter, Isabella Huffington, has written about the connection between pain, resilience and spirituality in her first book, Map to the Unknown, which was released as an Audible Original. It chronicles the story of what happened after she was hit by a bike on the streets of New York. What began as a concussion became three years of debilitating pain, but also a transformative emotional and spiritual journey of learning to trust the universe and her inner voice.
“When something senseless happens that our minds can’t explain or justify or control, it’s a fork in the road, a moment of choice,” she writes. “One fork is to go into despair and cynicism and raging at the universe (which is the route I first chose), or if you never believed in anything as amorphous as God or the universe, you can double-down on how meaningless life is. Or you can choose the other fork: starting the journey to finding deeper meaning in even the most senseless events in your life. You can let your loss and pain be the catalyst that divests you of whatever is not needed and takes you to the core of who you are.”
Isabella’s wise words are a gentle reminder that we always have choices, even when we think we don’t. They are reminders of the Stoics, who taught that even if we can’t control external events, we can choose how we respond. And they are reminiscent of the inspiring account of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl during his confinement in Auschwitz and other camps during World War II.
In his classic book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl described being locked down in a death camp, where he said he chose to be free: “When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves . . . Everything can be taken from a human but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to chose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl’s inner freedom helped him survive the Holocaust, find meaning in his personal tragedy and empower himself. His famous quote has helped millions of people to overcome obstacles to this day. This is the epitome of resilience, and this is why I vote for it as the word of the year and for 2021. It brings us hope and faith that we always have the power to choose, regardless of how dire the circumstances.
The American People and Resilience
If there’s anything the American people need for their mental health in 2021 it’s hope, optimism, and faith in the potential for the future. As Huffington points out, “The power to build resilience is within us; just as we can learn other skills through practice, we can teach ourselves to be more resilient.”
Some people are born with pit-bull determination, less affected by stressful situations and more resilient to change. Others are more vulnerable to the arrows of everyday pressures. But regardless of where you fall, it’s possible to cultivate resilience. All of us can set our mindsets for the New Year and learn to choose our perspectives and actions in the coming year like those before us.
“This has been a tragic year for so many—a year of so many losses and so much grief,” Huffington admits. “And yet, what the science and wisdom of resilience show us is that, as horrible as this year has been, the long-term impact on both our individual and our collective lives as a society is not predetermined or fixed. It’s a common refrain on social media to want to say goodbye to 2020. But our goal should be more than to just get through 2020, which will pass no matter what we do. The new year will inevitably come, but what kind of year will it be? What lessons will we carry with us to shape it into a year of hope and possibility? How will we have been transformed based on what we have experienced? That is up to us. And the more we summon and strengthen our resilience, the more we can bounce forward into a new and better year.”
This post also appears on Forbes.com.