From pandemics, to locusts, to wars, to floods, to murder hornets, to crime, to drug shortages, to riots, to meteorites and asteroids hurtling towards the Earth, with all the things apparently actively or accidentally trying to kill us, how are you still alive? It seems that nature and neighbor are either conspiring or coinciding to kill any one of us or many of us or most of us. Isn’t it a wonder that any of us are still standing?
Let me put the challenge another way: Given all the threats and horrors, those common and uncommon, likely and unlikely, why did you get out of bed this morning? Was it just a habit? Did you just need to make a quick visit to the bathroom? Did you get out of bed only because you have to go to work? Did you get out of bed because the dog needed to be walked? Or because the kids were screaming for breakfast? What makes you think that you can and will get out of bed tomorrow? How likely is it that you will want to? And what about the day after tomorrow?
Somehow, we go on. We persevere. Yet, we want to do more than merely survive, we want to thrive; we want to flourish, don’t we?
It’s been observed by many that, “Man can survive any ‘what’ if he has a good enough ‘why.’” We know of people who have survived earthquakes, shipwrecks and death camps, determined to stay alive in order to be reunited with loved ones. Nowadays especially, it seems that we are surrounded by many “whats” that want to kill us or at least break us.
Presumably, people of faith have a sufficient “why” to not succumb to despair.
Today, let’s look at the “how.” How can one persevere and even flourish when our world seems to be growing both more dangerous to us and more indifferent to us?
We need to talk about resilience.
The dynamics of resilience are often misunderstood, so let me clear away some misconceptions. Some speak of resilience as a way of just gritting your teeth and powering through. That’s not a long-term strategy, because we are never self-sufficient. Some speak of resilience in terms of exhortation. If I were a “motivational speaker” for example, I could exhort you to take better care of yourself (and make a very nice living through such exhortations!). I could offer you an entire suite of exhortations: I could exhort you to slow down, to do less, to become more efficient, to learn how to delegate, to learn how to say “no.” In other words, I could exhort you to do what is already obvious to you. I could exhort you to the triumph of the Immaculate Heart and until Christ returns in glory but it’s not likely to do you any good, and that’s not your fault—because you don’t need exhortation.
What you need is a change of vision. Resilience is best understood as the paradoxical obligation of what Josef Pieper called, “selfless self-preservation.” Resilience is akin to being instructed by the airline to put on your emergency oxygen mask first before you assist others with theirs. In other words, you become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution if you allow yourself to faint away or drop dead. Resilience isn’t about forcing yourself to power through; rather, resilience is about learning how to let yourself recharge, or perhaps better said, to let yourself recover.
rather, resilience is about learning how to let yourself recharge, or perhaps better said, to let yourself recover.
Resilience as selfless self-preservation is better understood if we distinguish between stopping, resting, and recovering. Real resilience is more than just stopping what you’re doing. One can be physically still while being exhausted by a racing mind and a restless heart. Real resilience is more than just resting—that is, just taking a breather before thoughtlessly and compulsively throwing yourself back into the fray.
Real resilience requires that we allow ourselves the opportunity for recovery. In the process of recovery, we take stock of what we’ve spent, what we’ve lost, what’s been damaged, and what we need. We also repeatedly remind ourselves that we are more than just useful instruments; we are children of God with meaning and value beyond our utility.
Imitating Christ, Christians serve friend and foe alike, with these words: “Because of who God is, and because of who you are to God, I choose to love and serve you.” Resilience requires that we learn how to say that to ourselves. When we do that, we can begin to live well the paradoxical obligation of selfless self-preservation.
When I write next, I will speak of a Christian response to loss and grief in response to the death of a friend. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
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