Sermon on Resilience

This is the text of a sermon I gave at Northlake Unitarian Universalist in Kirkland, Washington on February 23, 2020. A recording can be found here, or you can find it on the Northlake podcast, available on all major podcasting platforms.

Our monthly theme for February is Resilience. I’ll talk today about how we can help build resilience in ourselves, the children and adults in our lives, our church community, and the broader society.

So, what is resilience? And how do you know if you have it?

If you were lucky enough to never face any challenges, you’d never know if you have resilience (and honestly, you probably wouldn’t, because we build resilience by facing and mastering challenges in our lives.)

But, for most of us… challenges come to us on a far too regular basis, right?

Life’s Challenges

Anytime we face a life transition, or a new developmental stage, that’s a challenge. Whether that’s a toddler who falls down many times before they learn to walk, or the new parent who has to cope with all the tantrums that might cause. There’s midlife crises, there’s the challenges of aging… those are “expected challenges” that any developmental psychologist can tell you are typical, but that doesn’t mean they’re not hard for the people going through them.

There’s also all the unexpected challenges – the falls in the mud puddle, yet another ‘snow day’… the car that hits you and breaks your arm just when you’re settling in to your new ministry.

And then there’s interpersonal challenges – the boss who makes unfair demands, the girlfriend who says she’s “just not that into you,” or the parent who lets you down.

Challenges just keep on coming. Yep… hard times, hard times coming round once more.

But… and I know you’re going to hate it when I say this… but each of those moments of adversity is a learning experience. Each one offers “opportunities for personal growth.” Each one helps us learn how to stretch and how to bounce back.

What is Resilience?

One way of defining resilience is “doing better than expected in difficult circumstances.” We all have times when it seems like life is trying to knock us down, in small ways or in big ways. The question is: how will we respond? Will we let adversity pin us down?  Or will we bounce back up again? Or end standing stronger and taller than ever before? And how can our family and our community and our faith help us to bounce back?

[note: I shared images, taken from a video we’d shown before the service, which was about teaching children about resilience.]

Resilience is a topic that has long fascinated me, and been a big focus of my personal and professional life.

I first noticed different degrees of resilience when I was a teenager. I had been diagnosed with bone cancer, and was travelling from my home in Wyoming to Denver Children’s Hospital for treatment. I was bouncing between two worlds. At home, my friends were typical teenagers facing the daily challenges of teen life like pimples, bad test scores, and unrequited crushes. At Children’s, my friends were coping with life-long disability, recovering from life-threatening accidents, or undergoing the brutal chemotherapy and poor prognoses of cancer care in the early 80’s.

When challenges appeared for people, whether the challenges were small or the challenges were huge, I saw three different types of responses to them…

3 paths resilience

Some people were overwhelmed by any challenge. Some managed to bounce back from things – at least mostly. And some were made stronger by having walked through their challenges. I wondered why.

After my treatment, I went on to get a bachelor’s in sociology, then later a master’s in social work. I worked with kids facing cancer treatment, with people hoping to receive a liver transplant in time and with people with AIDS at a time when AIDS was always a terminal diagnosis.

With all my clients and their families, I watched and wondered about resilience. Why do some people seem to have “it” and others not?

Now for 25 years, I’ve worked with parents of young children, working for Parent Trust for Washington Children, PEPS, and Bellevue College Parent Education. These are parents and children going through all of those predictable developmental challenges where people keep saying “don’t worry, it’s just a phase” but where every day can be exhausting, overwhelming, and full of worry.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what parents can do to help build resilience in themselves and in their children. And I think that we as a church community can also ask ourselves – what can we do to build resilience in ourselves, our fellow Northlakers, and in our broader community?

Factors that Influence Resilience

Resilience is a really complex issue. There’s lots of factors that influence our response to adversity. Let’s look at those:

The reality is that hard things come into everyone’s life at some point. Sometimes they’re expected challenges like a move to a new home, but often adverse circumstances arrive out of the blue – an illness, a home break-in, or a job layoff might appear in our metaphorical inbox. run with

When a challenge hits, we start running with it, and we figure out our response as we go along.

Several things affect our response and whether or not we end up in a good place in the end.

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Some things are risk factors and others are protective.  The risk factors drag us down: they challenge our ability to cope and to recover from this challenge, and increase the chance of poor outcomes. The protective factors – things that make it easier for us to cope – lift us up and make it more likely we’ll have a positive, empowered result.

seesawWhat tips the balance for good outcomes is when the protective factors outweigh the risk factors. When we have so many good things going for us that the hard times are easy to overcome.

Amongst those factors that influence our response, some are on the individual level  – specific to that person and the ways they interact with the world, some are found within  their network of family, close friends and communities,  and some factors are from  the broader society as a whole.levels of factors

Individual Factors

Some people are just inherently more resilient than others, no matter what life throws at them. Dr. Thomas Boyce has researched the human stress response for 40 years, and he says some people are dandelions, and some are orchids.

Dandelions are people who can go through almost anything, and be unfazed by it all. I lucked out – I’m a dandelion all the way. Orchids are a lot more sensitive – they’re more vulnerable to stress, and need more support to weather the storms. But given the right nurturing care, they can thrive and become incredibly beautiful – more beautiful than those scrappy dandelions…

So what individual factors help to make us more or less resilient?

individualDevelopmental psychologist Emmy Werner found that resilient people have a strong “internal locus of control” – they believe they are in control of their own destinies. Even if bad things happen to them, they feel they can choose how to let that impact them.

Earlier, we sang the hymn “voice still and small”, and I believe that this voice is “deep inside all.” Some of us just need more help connecting to it.

Resilient people have confidence in their own competence. And they have a growth mindset… instead of thinking of themselves as “not good” at something, they think “I’m not good at it yet. If I just keep working hard, I bet I’ll figure it out.”

Temperament-wise, it’s easier to be resilient when you have a sense of humor about life, when you’re naturally easy-going, naturally flexible, and calm… as our opening hymn said “no storm can shake my inmost calm while to the rock I’m clinging… how can I keep from singing.”

We know that our mental health is influenced by many things beyond our control – genetic, epigenetic, and environmental. Depression can make it supremely hard to bounce back from challenges, and anxiety can mean that even small challenges quickly become overwhelming as you worry about how much worse it might become. Physical illness and disability are challenging circumstances on their own, often creating chronic adversity, and they can also make it harder to bounce back from other challenges. Good mental health and physical health is a huge protective factor.

Having goals you’re working toward helps with resilience – it’s the “eyes on the prize” focus that helps you push through the hard times. Resilient individuals tend to have things outside themselves that give them a reason to get up every day. This can be an interest or passion, such as music or art. This can be big dreams they’re working toward. Or, it can be knowing that other people are counting on them.

According to psychologist George Bonanno, a key individual factor is perception – how we interpret the difficult circumstances. Do we perceive an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Sometimes even something tragic, while very sad in the short term, might also be a powerful life event that changes someone for the better in the long term. This positive perception… finding meaning in loss… is more likely for people who have a spiritual or religious faith.

Family and Community Factors

Let’s look at the impact of Family and also of Close Community. Community could mean a child’s school, an adult’s workplace, or a church community like Northlake.

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When these circles are healthy, they provide the key protective factor of a secure base.

From these communities, we learn our values – what does it mean to be a good person? We learn about faith – whether that’s a belief in a higher power, or a belief in a greater good, faith can provide a strong beacon of hope in the darkness of despair. We learn our stories, those oscillating family stories described in our reading… “dear, we’ve had good times and bad times, but we are a strong, resilient people and we keep moving forward together.” [Note, this refers to a reading we heard earlier in the service, an excerpt from “The Stories that Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler.]

In these communities, we find our key relationships. Researchers at Harvard found that no matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable, committed relationship with a supportive adult. Whether that’s a parent, friend, clergy, teacher or coach. That person offers us emotional support, they help us to see our own strengths, they teach us how to plan and how to cope in healthy ways.

In these communities, we can learn that we are valued, and that we can contribute in meaningful ways. We can see that our commitment is essential, and sometimes on our dark days, what keeps us going is knowing that other people are counting on us, and we have to show up for them.

These communities can also be a source of concrete support – a ride to the doctor’s office after an injury, a bed to crash on when a relationship falls apart, a loan when we can’t pay a bill, someone to watch our kids for us – all these “little things” can help carry us through a hard spot.

Now, the problem is that our families and our communities are not always healthy. And just as a healthy home base can build resilience, an unhealthy family is devastating to our long-term resilience.

There is some really important research in health and mental health called the ACE’s study – where ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences.

Researchers asked people about their childhood – had they experienced things such as abuse, witnessed domestic violence, had parents with mental health issues or addiction or who were incarcerated, or had experienced homelessness. 60% of people have one or more of these experiences in childhood. The more you have, the less resilient you’ll be as an adult. About 12% of people have an ACE score of 4 or higher. With a score of 4 or higher, you’re 4x more likely to experience addiction, 3x more likely to have heart disease, respiratory disease and diabetes, far more likely to experience mental health challenges, and 6x more likely to say you never feel optimism or hope.

The good news about ACE’s is that they can be overcome.

Knowing about the negative impact of ACE’s and working to mitigate it is the first step. Another key step  is connecting to healthy relationships and healthy communities. The research is really clear that even for kids from very toxic home environments, even just one healthy relationship with one positive mentor in the community is a huge boost on their path to recovery.

Societal / Resource Factors

We have a strong cultural narrative in America – the cultural narrative that everyone can succeed if they “just try hard enough.”

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But we all know that we don’t have a level playing field in America – we’re not all starting from the same place. A person who is living in poverty, in a crime-ridden neighborhood, where drug use is a common escape from the pain of living just doesn’t have the same resilience resources available to them. Or, even if someone had all the other advantages they could have, if they happen to have dark skin, or happen to be female, or gay, or trans, or disabled, or non-Christian, they have to carry the weight of systematic oppression. That weight makes it harder to magically “bounce back” from challenges.

I said earlier that I happen to be a dandelion… and maybe that would be true of me no matter what. But here’s the deal: it’s always been easy for me to be resilient. Because whatever challenges came upon me, I have so many resources in place. I happen to have been born into a stable, white, middle class family. I made it through my childhood with an ACE score of 0. In adulthood, I’ve always had resources… so whatever challenge might arise, I’ve got back-up plans: I have car insurance, home insurance, health insurance. I’ve got flexible hours at work, paid sick leave, and short-term disability pay. I’ve got cash in the bank. I have a safe, warm home. I’ve got people to take care of me, people to take care of my kid. I’ve got the skills to research and access any services that I need. I can speak with educated words and a voice of authority and white skin that afford me respectful treatment by those I encounter. All of these things make it easy for me to “bounce back” from whatever happens. And I have to acknowledge the privilege in that, and use that privilege to work for ways to increase other people’s access to these same back-up plans to carry them through the hard times.

How to Build Resilience

So, let’s start talking about how we can build resilience in ourselves and in others. Let’s first look at this societal level, and what we can do to tip the balance.

Build Resilience at a Societal Level

soc protectWork to dismantle systematic oppression. Respect and support cultural identities as tools for empowerment. Help increase equitable access to concrete resources and safe communities. Support organizations which work to increase hope in impoverished communities through the arts, access to job opportunities, and tools to help people reach for their dreams.

Build at family and community level:

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  • Think about the Stories We Tell. Stories can mobilize sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions. When you’re facing difficult times, it helps to feel like you’re a part of something bigger, and to believe that “your people” have a history of weathering challenge and emerging stronger than before.
  • Build Relationships, and Be a Mentor. Remember, a key factor in resilience is having a relationship with someone who believes in you, encourages you to be the best possible you, and helps you keep moving when life seems too hard. Each of you can be one of those people – not just for your friends and family, but for any person here at Northlake, or in the broader community. Any time we interact with anyone in a way that reflects their inherent worth and dignity, we build their resilience.
  • Let people know that their presence in the community matters, and that they can make valuable contributions. This is even in the little things. Here at Northlake, I’ll occasionally ask a child to help me as I set up or tidy – even a three year old can be asked to help carry something. Sometimes kids are surprised to be asked, because we often don’t ask them. But when we do, and we thank them for their help, it increases their sense of efficacy.
  • Concrete Support. Lending a helping hand to a parent with their hands full, offering a ride to someone recovering from an injury, helping someone work on a resume, passing on news about available affordable housing, or accompanying someone to a support group meeting are just some examples of simple things we can do to help people get back on their feet after a challenge. Keep your eyes open for your opportunities.

Build Resilience in Individuals

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  • Support them in viewing themselves as having control over their destiny. You can use a framework of “I have… I am… I can…” that encourages someone facing hardship to think about what resources they have, to tell themselves a positive story of who they are, and to think about concrete steps that they can take to help improve their situation. This builds their internal locus of control.
  • Carol Dweck has researched what she calls “the Growth Based Mindset” which is a belief that we are capable of learning more and doing better. And Angela Duckworth has researched what she calls “Grit” as a vital mechanism in achieving success despite barriers. One way to build these things is to talk about mistakes, failures, and setbacks as normal parts of learning, not as reasons to quit. Remind yourself and those around you that everyone runs up against things they can’t do. The ones who succeed are the ones who pick themselves up and try again.
  • In terms of Temperament – some people are naturally more fearful, and when things seem hard, their anxiety takes over. Researchers at Yale have learned that if we accommodate too much, it actually makes anxiety worse. If we tell someone “I know that’s scary, so you don’t have to do it”, it actually validates that this thing is way too scary and way too powerful. Instead, we can say to ourselves and others “It’s OK to feel scared. We all feel scared. Let’s make a plan for how we can do it anyway.”
  • We know Mental Health and Physical Health are huge protective factors. So, at the societal level, we can be doing public policy advocacy to increase access to health care. But, at the individual level, with ourselves and others, we can think about self care. We can remember that it’s important to prioritize self care – it helps to help recharge our batteries to give us enough energy to face whatever challenges may come.
  • We know that having a goal in mind helps us to keep pushing forward. Ask people to tell you about their dreams. Help them to figure out what the next manageable step is toward achieving that dream. Emphasize that even when challenges seem hard in the short term, we can work to overcome them and not let them block us from that long-term goal.
  • Perception – Learn how to re-frame challenges for yourself, and share with others what you have learned. There are three aspects to re-framing:
    • If you find yourself believing that when bad things happen it’s always your fault, try re-framing to “sometimes bad things happen that are beyond my control. What I can control is how I respond to them.”
    • Stay focused on fixing the specific problem rather than thinking it’s a sign of some global problem. For example, if you don’t get a job you were hoping for, remember that it’s not that you are fundamentally unemployable. It’s just that one job that said no…. keep trying till you find the right fit.
    • View problems as impermanent – it will get better in time, and there are steps you can take to help it improve.

outcomeIn the end, some of the most important protective factors that build resilience and increase positive outcomes are the stories that we tell ourselves about the challenges that we face, and the stories that we tell those in our community about who we are, and what we’re capable of. Earlier, our hymn said “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, “Yes,” to life; though with pain I made my way, still with hope I meet each day.” It is that hope that can carry us forward.

Let’s end with this quote by Mary Anne Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, (whispering), ‘I will try again tomorrow.'”