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Cultivating Resilience (+Boston and Poland tips!)

Piggybacking off of my last blog post, I thought I’d briefly touch on my travels to Poland. I was blown away by this country. It was clean. It was well-organized. It was easy to get around. Most everyone spoke English. It was inexpensive (4 to 1 exchange rate from the dollar to the złoty). And it was gorgeous with delicious food.

A lot of countries can meet that list, but what impressed me most about Poland was the people. I never knew Fryderyk Chopin was from Poland. Warsaw has musical benches that play his music and an airport named after him. I never knew who Adam Mickiewicz was or how he wrote beautiful poetry about Poland while the place was not even a country. Krakow and Warsaw have statues of him in their main squares. I knew St. Pope John Paul II was from Poland, and it seemed every possible place had a statue of him, even one made of salt in a salt mine outside of Krakow.

The Polish people were all so proud of their culture, despite centuries of being conquered by other peoples and being wiped off the map many a time. They talked about their history honestly but always with hope. They were resilient.

The American Psychological Association defined resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.” More and more attention has been paid to resilience because it appears to be the linchpin to better mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I am taking a class about trauma in the fall, and I am so excited to learn about the power of resilience, especially encouraging resilience in others.

Aside from the Polish people, one the of the greatest examples of resilience I have seen is my friend Meghan. Meghan, myself, her boyfriend, and two of her college friends all went out to Boston to watch her run her first Boston marathon. Meghan lives to run. She trains like no one else I know, only does other kinds of exercise to help her running, and even voluntarily drinks beet juice to run faster. She was incredibly well-prepared to run the Boston, but then the weather happened.

The 122nd Boston Marathon took place on a cold, rainy April day that even had hail for a time. It was some of the worst weather to stand around and cheer in, let alone run in. About a tenth of Boston marathon runners ended up in medical tents. We went to about the 5K mark to cheer for Meghan, and even there, we saw multiple runners drop out. Our Meghan dropped out around mile 22 due to hypothermia. Medical staff tried to get her to go to the hospital, but being as an Emergency Medical Technician (now nursing student), she knew what they were trying to do and said “no” to anything that would make her end up there.

What drives people run marathons despite the pain of running, the cold, the rain?

What drives people believe in their country despite being conquered and not even on a map?

What drives people to hope when nothing is providing a source of hope?

I have long followed the work of Dr. Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, and researcher the University of Houston. Her books are on my bookshelf, and I love her TED talks about vulnerability and shame. Her work taught me that my drive towards perfectionism was destructive instead of constructive. In one of her more recent books Rising Strongshe essentially talked about resilience, the rise after the fall.

Brown recounts her research and the stories of various people who were willing to be vulnerable after extraordinary pain. What I learned from reading her book is how willing to be vulnerable instead of bulletproof is extraordinarily difficult. It takes digging beneath our hurt, disengagement, and fear to find the tiny bit of ourselves that is vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening, especially when it is not respected by others.

I admire my friend Meghan because she is willing to run, not knowing what her time will be or even if she’ll finish. I admire the Polish people because they are willing to love their culture, faith, and story without knowing the outcome. I wish I had a natural drive to be hopeful, vulnerable, and resilient, but I just do not.

As one of my favorite authors Malcolm Gladwell told beautifully in his New Yorker article called “Late Bloomers,” our culture tends to believe natural talent is all you have. We have little patience for developing skills over time, thinking we need to be a prodigy like Picasso.

We think success needs to be given to us, not cultivated. But as Gladwell recounted, an economist David Galenson decided to study when artists, poets, and filmmakers made their masterpiece. There was no correlation with age and success. Some like Picasso were prodigies, but others, like Cezanne, took years to develop their skills and were just as talented and famous at the end.

I just finished reading the young adult fiction book An Abundance of Katherines by John Green all about a prodigy named Colin Singleton who fears that he already reached his peak without doing anything. Colin says multiple time how he fears the self-made person who learns skills and knowledge instead of being born with them naturally. As he laments, not all prodigies end up famous and talented.  Somehow – as people are with Colin in the book – we are fascinated with prodigies. Somehow we believe the lie that we were given all talent we’ll ever have.

This is fixed mentality, as Dr. Carol Dweck of Standford University has studied and written about. Dweck has shown time and time again her studies that it’s our mentality, not our actual ability, that often determines our success. Growth mentality – the mindset that we can change and grow – is determinant of success and the difference between two equally talented people succeeding. She most recently delved into the cultural adage of  ‘find your passion’ when we should really say ‘develop your passion.’

Truth is, we have our natural talents and skills, but we can cultivate other talents and skills too. I was not good at placing IVs when I started in the Emergency Department, but now I’m definitely on the good side of the IV bell curve. On the other hand, I’m naturally very good at writing. Part of it, I would like to think, is natural talent because I have a certain love of language. However, I owe a major debt to my mother who is a phenomenal writer and editor. She inspired a love of reading, encouraged a love of writing my supporting me at writing camps (how nerdy!), and taught me to write well from a young age. In turn, I try to share the writing love by editing papers for my co-workers who are in school and do not have the amazing editor I have.

Vulnerability is something I have struggled with mightily. I struggle to be vulnerable in my relationship with God, with others, and with myself. I struggle to be resilient I do not acknowledge the initial pain and hurt in order to recover from it. I struggle to be hopeful because I am naturally wanting to improve things and can hardly enjoy things are they are.

I think the Polish learned resilience just as my friend Meghan learned resilience. The Polish did not stop loving their heritage but cultivated it in secret with one another. (In a well-timed providential find, Fr. Michael Gaitley in The Second Greatest Story Every Told attributes much of the Polish resilience to their faith too.) Meghan did not stop running because it hurt the first time but got up and ran again.

Though I have much to learn on the topic, I am convinced that resilience is learning how to stand up again after the fall, even when you know you’ll be pushed down again. Too much trauma can make us retreat, though. As Brown wrote: “Of all the things trauma takes away from us, the worst is our willingness, or even our ability, to be vulnerable. There’s a reclaiming that has to happen.” I think there’s a degree of needing grace from God and support from loved ones too.

Ultimately, the drive to stand up again has to be within us. People can stabilize us as we try to walk, but as I know from being a nurse, the patient needs to have some drive to walk. It is so much harder to carry dead weight than someone who is trying at least a little. We have to try at least a little when our loved ones support us.

God works miracles. As of late, I am being constantly amazed in prayer how my own ideas of His love, mercy, and grace as well as even my own dreams and desires for myself are too small. God can heal us of any trauma, but He never forces us to come to Him. Out of love and in love, He has given us freedom. Ultimately, the drive to stand up, crawl, or even call out for healing needs to come from within us.

But that’s how I think we learn resilience: a little try, a little cry, a little bit at a time. We’re going to fall and get crushed from time to time. But, as Theodore Roosevelt said and Brown loves to quote:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena”

Favorite Things in Boston:

  • Thinking Cup – a local coffee chain throughout Boston with great coffee, wonderful sandwiches, and delightful treats.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts – this might be blasphemy, but I liked it more than the MET in New York City.
  • Mike’s Pastry – in the North End with the best cannoli in the city. Cash only!
  • Faneuil Hall/The Public Market – Faneuil Hall is a historic building, and the area is surrounded by shopping and local food options

Favorite Things in Krakow:

  • Krakow Free Tours – Amazing overview of the city and ours ended with a dragon!
  • Wawel Cathedral – Poland liked to borrow a little bit of everyone else’s architecture, but the interior is amazing. Also, the climb up the tower is so fun with a fantastic view at the end!
  • St. Mary’s Basilica – Amazing church in the market square with a trumpeter on the roof
  • Glonojad –  a cute vegetarian restaurant nearby my hostel had fantastic coffee and sandwiches
  • Main Market Square – the largest medieval square in all of Europe, it is beautiful, colorful, and full of good restaurants

Favorite Things in Warsaw:

  • Old Town – Destroyed during WWII, this has been beautifully remodeled and looks as if it is centuries old.
  • Łazienki Park – A gorgeous, sprawling park in the middle of city with the king’s summer palace.
  • The Palace of Culture and Science – A building installed by the Russians after WWII, the building itself is unpopular among Poles but supposedly has one of the best views in the city. (My friend and I never got up there though!)
  • Tel Aviv – When we needed a break from heavy Polish food, this vegan middle-eastern restaurant was perfect

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