Are you resilient?

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I’ve encountered two extremes of people in my life.

The first person was born into the best possible earthly circumstances with equal measures of good looks, intelligence, and opportunity. Despite being born in a wealthy country, to a loving family, with access to a world class education, and great capability to achieve greatness—she limps along. She exists on the brink of a grisly pit of depression—fueled by a self-pitying existential crisis. Barely discernible misfortunes have the power to evoke a self-destructive cascade into despair.

I’ve also met a girl I could only characterize as resilient. If you’re aware of my passion right now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about my friend, Zenab. She has endured every conceivable form of injustice—misguided by a culture that taught her abuse was normal, abandonment was expected, and violence unavoidable. But yet, she kept bouncing back, climbing higher, and breaking down barriers. To casually observe her, you might never guess she had ever suffered. Instead, if you weren’t compelled to listen to her, you might assume she was born to lucky circumstances given the way she optimistically views her life.

In many ways—but certainly not to the same extreme—Zenab’s spirit resounds with my own.  I too have marveled when friends have expressed that they had felt in some way misled by my hopeful, generally cheerful, contented disposition. It always happened at the point in a friendship where I had revealed encounters and brushes with darkness from my past. I’ve heard it phrased a dozen different ways, but the reaction has always been some variation of the following: I never would have guessed that about you. The implication was blatantly conveyed no matter how tactfully—I must somehow be broken, less than, and in some way pitiable because of my circumstances.

I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to hide who I am. On the contrary, I’m quite willing (in the right context) to share my journey. Still, the repeated disbelief over who I had become, in spite of my past, hadn’t inspired me to ponder the topic too deeply. It wasn’t until a respected friend in the field of psychology one day stated, “Our field would love to study people like you. What makes you so resilient?” that I began to ponder it.

I suppose it’s the same question I asked myself when I met Zenab and began writing her story. I wanted to understand what it was about her that made her rise above circumstances that pummeled others into destruction. What I discovered was that she wasn’t born strong, and she certainly didn’t always appear to be overcoming the challenges in her life. There were moments she thought she had been defeated—a struggle I could relate to. But then something happened. A pivotal moment—barely perceptible, but profoundly transformative. She embraced the belief that who she would become was defined—not by what was happening around her—but within her.

Resilient people believe that who they are is defined on the inside—not by circumstances.

It’s really that simple and reminds me of yet another paradox in life. Those that seem to be born to the best circumstances—are often those most spiritually and emotionally crippled. The reason is that it’s too comfortable to wake up from the lie. When we believe we’re special because of our unique circumstances, it manifests as a victim mentality. If we believe we are defined by our lucky circumstances than it naturally follows that who we are—is beyond our control. It’s a belief, ultimately, in powerlessness.

Have you noticed that more of us in the United States are ill-equipped to surmount minor inconveniences compared to atrocities faced by heroes throughout history? I want to suggest that we, as a culture, are clinging to our specialness. And as long as we believe we’re better-than, more-than, or defined-by the country we’re born in, we’ll remain victims. As long as we are convinced that who we are is the sum of our genetics, family, and opportunities—we’ll resist the call to take the helm of our own personal power.

Resilience is forged when special circumstances are stripped away, and an individual wakes up to this simple truth: I’m the one who creates who I am. I choose. I can rise.

Are you resilient?

image: flickr creative commons Leland Francisco

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