Word of the Week: Resilience

A week ago, the word “resilience” might have conjured in my imagination a bowlegged toddler running down the sidewalk, colliding with gravity, and pushing herself back up, scraped knees and all.

Suddenly I am thinking of resilience more expansively. It is every one of us who made it through last year — and, yes, last week — renewing daily our commitment to carry on. Resilience now conjures something as deep and wide as American democracy, maimed but still breathing, still marching.

Resilience is individual and communal. It is the collective decision that what we have inherited — “a republic if we can keep it” — is worth preserving. Resilience is not knowing how to proceed in the face of an unthinkable situation, but committing to figuring it out. It is stepping forward without knowing if you can save what must be saved, or if you have the strength to. Resilience is my friend spending the weekend writing letter after letter to the nation’s elected representatives demanding simply that they tell the truth, because she needed to say that.

Resilience is opening the shutters in the morning and being comforted at the sight of the trees and sky still there.

Resilience is seeking out wisdom, like: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight,” and this excerpt from Optimism, by Helen Keller, found in one of my favorite resources, Brainpickings.

Keller wrote,

I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.

Resilience is foundational. Resilience is a struggle. Resilience is an act of faith.

May we remember that resilience is in us.

How to See Miracles

My grandmother Lilli Diamond has taught me many things. Among some of the lasting lessons:

  • The Yiddish word for “stickshift” is…“stickshift”;
  • If someone declines your offer of a banana, offer him half a banana (because why would anyone in his right mind turn down a banana??)
  • Laugh every day, even if you “gotta crack your own self up.”
  • Use hyperbole to heighten one’s sunny outlook, as in “This is the best hot dog I ever had! In my whole life I never had a hot dog as good as this!”

This last point deserves explanation. A person could think such extravagant exuberance could dilute genuine emotional power; if everything is grand, nothing is. But it’s the opposite. She says it with such enthusiasm, she convinces you. She convinces herself.

(On the other hand, maybe the hot dog warranted the outburst; she eats fruit for dessert every day, and disdains those at her old folks’ home (her words) who order ice cream. And I’m thinking – Grandma, if not now, when?)

So forget the hot dog. Let’s try another example. A few minutes ago she called to tell me: “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.” Let’s hear it, Grandma. “Today, when the girl went down to the dining room to get my oatmeal, they were all out. Guess what I had for breakfast? I had the scone that you brought me yesterday!” To some, a rock-hard day-old scone; to her, a Hanukah miracle.

“I know I’ve told you this before,” she said to me yesterday as we crept toward the dining room at lunchtime. We were trailing behind another lady using a walker, and a man in a wheelchair passed us – unfair advantage, he had an aide. She paused to allow herself a fit of laughter at the incongruousness of where she found herself and her self-image. “I sometimes imagine that I’m in a play,” she continued, “and I’ve gone to the Director, and he has handed me my sides. ‘You’re going to play an elderly lady. Go to hair. Go to makeup. Go to costume,’ she looks down at her outfit and starts laughing again. ‘Go to props,’ she says, shaking with giggles and grasping her walker. ‘And go live at that Belmont with all the old people.’” She is playing a role – her outside a far cry from her inner life.

I laugh with her. We may cry a little, too. But right now we stand in a bubble, no one else can come in. Not the helpful staff, nor the perplexed residents. It’s our moment. I breathe in whatever I can from her. I inhale her amazement at the ordinary moment, her ability to find something wonderful or hilarious in the midst of a depressing milieu, her determination to sustain and entertain herself, an 18-year-old spirit in a…an older woman’s body.