Resilience in Action

Out Of the Woods

In the October 2006 issue of Children Webmag I commented on a remarkable book about resilience:  Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens, by Stuart T. Hauser, Joseph P. Allen and Eve Golden, (Harvard University Press, London 2006).  One of the advantages of an electronic magazine is that readers can instantly read or re-read this material.

For me the book was an eye-opener: it provided words and concepts for what I already knew but couldn’t sort out or for which I could not find adequate expression.  And it was based on some very neat, meticulous, imaginative and thoughtful research.

Recently I was chatting with a person whom we have known and helped at Mill Grove over a number of years, and everything he said confirmed the wisdom of the findings of Hauser et al.  So I add his story to their findings.

A Young Person’s Story

The person had experienced a harrowing childhood by any standards.  His mother had been a drug addict, and was unable to provide good enough parenting for him (and his siblings); his father, for whatever reasons, seemed to distance himself from home and family.  He was alcohol dependent and unpredictable.

The young person lacked the most basic of patterns in his childhood, and he received few predictable responses.  He also lacked any sense that there was someone who was attuned to his gifts and needs and who was unconditionally committed to him.  When his mother died he was cared for over a few years by his stepmother before, as a teenager, he chose to come and to live at Mill Grove.  He stayed with us until he went to university, and then returned some time after completing his degree.

When he was living with us he found it very hard to adjust from a life dominated by a battle for self-survival to that of an accepting community.  Looking back he seemed to me very hard on himself: he always used the word “selfish” to describe his attitude, when it was difficult for me to see how he could have been anything else given his story to that point.  He had survived because he had chosen to preserve himself.

Reflecting on Resilience in the Light of This Story

And this is where the book Out of the Woods comes in.  Three of the elements of resilience that they traced in the four people they studied in detail were:

*a thirst for agency and a sense of their personal agency in the way they described (labeled?) themselves and connected with their life story (personal narrative);

*looking inward and an openness to their own feelings rather than blocking them out or attributing everything that happened as a victim might, to others;

*and the pivotal place of relationships.

What the young person said to me confirmed each of these, not in a mechanical or listed way, but as his story and reflections unfolded quite spontaneously.

Personal Agency

Some months before, he had told me that he needed a counsellor and counselling “to get his head sorted out”.  He had tried this for a period, but concluded that it wasn’t helping.  It was not that he was resistant to exploring his feelings past and present, but that he had come to realise that this approach was in effect to hand his problem over to someone else.  He had realised that he, himself, had to work on understanding his own life-story.  He was happy to engage trusted others in sharing about what he was finding on the search, but not in the context of a series of counselling sessions.  He valued his own life-story and wanted to discover more about it, in his own way and time.  And clearly this was not a defence mechanism: for he was active in his pursuit of more information.

Rather than stay with a fixed version of what had happened (with characters portrayed in black and white, or as good or bad) he had enough self-knowledge and awareness to believe that learning more about what had happened, and the motivations of those close to him, would enrich his self-understanding and aid him in his life-project.  He had got beyond seeing things in crudely mechanistic terms, where for example someone was “to blame”, and another was “the victim” or innocent sufferer.  He had come to see that life was much more subtly textured and graded than that.

He had learned much from the varied experiences of his life about how things work, and how to succeed.  This process of learning from past successes and failures was vital to the way he looked at himself and his future.  He believed that he was going to get things together and succeed.  The framework for this process was his personal narrative: if you like, his autobiography.

Openness to Feelings

As we chatted, he was comfortable relaying and reflecting on his feelings past and present about himself and others.  The way he described the feelings of his siblings was clear evidence of the ability he had to understand his own.  Some feelings remained unchanged or virtually as strong as a couple of years before, but some had changed.  He was surprised when I reminded him how driven he was on entering university to prove his father wrong.  It was anger and rage that lay somewhere near the heart of his determination to succeed.  Again he was not defensive, but rather interested in discussing the development and maturing of his feelings.

He was intrigued by the way he thought, by the processes of thinking, and by why he thought as he did.  Just as he had learned through (external) life experiences how to negotiate certain situations, so he realised that how and why he felt (internally) also provided a key to mastery in and of his life.

Concern for Relationships

It is not hard to deduce from what has been written already that relationships were really important to him.  He found his father’s distancing of himself difficult to take and to understand, but he had begun to imagine how his father might be feeling and why.  He had also discovered that one of his brothers meant a great deal more to him than had been true for many years previously.  He found that this brother had genuine insights into other members of the family, and that their growing respect and fondness for each other was mutual.

And it was becoming clear that our relationship and conversation, spread over several years, was one that was developing: we had not become stuck in ruts, patterns or circles. We mattered to each other, and this mirrored the store he set by friendship and relationships.

It is not easy to describe all this as part of a process rather than as innate qualities or personal characteristics.  What I was encountering was a journey of discovery, and I was privileged to play a small part in the process.  Perhaps he was “naturally resilient”: we cannot say, but he was on a learning curve that meant he was finding ways of deriving insights from the knocks as well as the strokes.  It hasn’t been easy, and the way ahead is neither clear nor straightforward, but that is where resilience comes in: it has already found ways of overcoming barriers and hurdles, internal and external.

Resilience and the Human Spirit

As you can tell, I admire this young person, and find his continuing story inspiring (something he finds rather strange, if not bewildering).  Out of the Woods ends with a fine last sentence that shows how the authors were similarly inspired by their interactions with the four children who shaped their understanding of resilience:

“These kids demonstrate the deep, hidden, and surprising capacity of the human spirit to push the barriers imposed upon it, to grow upward toward the sun, and to thrive.”  (page 299)

When I first read Out of the Woods I had not studied in any detail the book by James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1998).  Now I realise that the two books are describing a similar process: wired into humans is a capacity (spirit) that will always tend to overcome obstacles, to solve problems, and to move to the next discovery and wider horizons. So Loder concludes:

“In, through, over, and above so-called normal development the human spirit surges, struggles, sustains, submerges, and re-emerges with the newness of life…in each person [there is a] search [that is] a longing for the eternal intimacy of a love that may be grasped only unclearly and proleptically, but nevertheless profoundly in the face of a beloved caretaker.” (pages 339, 341)

Resilience is a description or recognition of how this spirit operates in some people despite, and through, considerable and chronic personal setbacks and traumas.  Sadly, in some this spirit is quenched or thwarted.  I am privileged to live among many whose spirit is alive, and one of these is the young man who was talking with me.

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