Imagine walking down a sidewalk in New York City and seeing thousands of pieces of paper caught in the wind. When you pick up one document out of curiosity, you see that these are, in fact, your papers. It's the Great Depression, you were unable to pay your rent at your dental practice, and your landlord has tossed all of your belongings, including your patient records, bills, and books, into the street. You run up and down the street for hours grabbing what you can. You are heartbroken. All of your dreams have been crushed.
Imagine being a four-year-old girl in Chicago in 1929 who becomes sick with one of the most feared diseases in the world, diphtheria. The city's health department quarantines you, along with your father, into your railroad flat. Officials nail the door shut and paint a giant "D" for diphtheria on your front door. You survive, as does your father, only to have the same thing happen when your family relocates to New York City two years later and the disease you catch this time is scarlet fever. You and your father survive this, too.
Imagine being an Eagle Scout who enlists in the U.S. Army three days after graduating high school in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, in 1942. By the age of 20 you find yourself on the other side of the world, trying not to get killed by Japanese snipers. Before that, however, there is basic training where, during a live-ammunition exercise, you see your first death. A soldier next to you lifts his head slightly too high while you're all scrambling on your stomachs across a field. Your fellow soldier is killed right before your eyes, and you haven't even left the USA yet.
The first example was Dr. Bessie Delany of the famed centenarian Delany Sisters with whom I collaborated on the 1993 oral history, HAVING OUR SAY. Through her own ingenuity and grit, she re-built her dental practice. She continued to practice dentistry until her retirement.
The second example was my mother. My mother played with her dolls, said prayers, and sang songs to keep up her own spirits while extremely ill and quarantined.
The third example was my father. He adapted and survived WW II in the Army by focusing on a combination of hope, humor, and can-do optimism.
I provide these three examples to illustrate 1.) losing a business 2.) facing dire illness and quarantine, and 3.) being a war-time soldier.
What these three individuals had in common was resilience. While one could argue that resilience is a trait with which one is born, I contend that it is a learned skill.
Resilience is a reaction to a bad situation. It's a way of framing a problem. It's being knocked down and getting up again.
We're all getting some practice in the art of resilience this year. A pandemic, a severely-damaged economy and a stunning level of anger and uncertainty have created a tragic year, and it's only October.
I've had my share of hardship and losses in my life, but my response to this year (which, for me, also included the death of my mother in March) has been one of resilience. I am not patting myself on the back. I owe this, 100 percent, to those who modeled that behavior for me, including the Delany Sisters and my own parents.
Resilience is not just an attitude. It's having the ability to stay calm and find solutions, even if they're only smalls steps. Problem-solving, thinking ahead, and accepting reality are part of it, too. Being resilient does not mean your response is perfect. Resilient people have days when they don't get out of bed, or days when they get angry, but the difference is that the next day they are ready to start over. Being resilient, ultimately, can become part of a broader pattern. It is a way of life.
Now I come full circle to something my readers, followers, and fans have heard me say for years: Listen to your elders, especially those who seem to bounce back from life's challenges. Seek out people you admire and follow in their footsteps.
Remember, at the same time, that some people deemed strong in our society are actually quite weak. Don't mistake loudness for leadership, or over-sharing and attention-seeking for being honest. Beware of people who need to actively prove something all the time. Our culture offers many more negative than positive examples. If you don't have anyone to emulate in your life, then follow the insight offered by the Delany Sisters. "The world is full of good people. Your job is to find them."