Tuesday, March 23, 2010


When Eldest was a baby, she had a friend named Tommy. Or rather, I had a friend named Annette, who had a son named Tommy, and we got together in the park several times a week. Tommy was born at 24 weeks gestation. He was an extraordinarily bright child, cheerful and good-spirited. But Tommy wasn't keeping pace with his developmental milestones, and around his first birthday, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. 

I saw Annette the day she got the news, and she was devastated. Yet a week later, she was avidly researching what there was to research, and was already deeply immersed in the slow torture of negotiating insurance coverage for therapies. I was astonished. I sputtered, "How?... How?..." and she replied, "I gave myself 48 hours to cry, and then it was time to move on."

Moving on didn't mean that Annette never cried, or that she didn't continue to grieve. I'm convinced part of the reason God made days 24 hours long is so there's always a 2:00 a.m. for the tears of weary mothers. Annette continued to mourn the life she'd dreamed of for her son. But during the daylight hours, when there were things to be done and progress to be made, Annette focused on what she had to do. Slowly, slowly, slowly she accepted that she could still have beautiful dreams for Tommy, dreams that reflected who he was instead of who she'd thought he'd be. My sister's amazing that way, too.

Many years later I realized that some of Annette's amazing coping skills came from her own serious health problems. She'd suffered from toxoplasmosis for many years, and had had to learn the hard way how to bounce back and keep going. Because otherwise... well, there was no otherwise.

Most of us, I think, learn to rebound the hard way. We weep over minor things until the day we fall down in a busy street and have to choose between sitting there and crying, or dragging ourselves to the curb before getting run over by a Mack Truck. When the options are dramatic, the choices become clear. The key question is whether or not we have the mental muscle at that time to pull ourselves up off the pavement and move.

One of my Mack Truck experiences in life -- Big Guy's anxiety disorder -- has taught me that a lot of that mental muscle is teachable. Most of it comes from self-talk: what we say to ourselves when we encounter setbacks, and what we tell ourselves about why we succeed. I have more than one kid who is a hard-wired self-defeatist, and that's why Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism is on my top-10 list of required parental reading, even though it's not a parenting book. Studies show that resilience is the most important factor in determining success in life. You can be brilliant, creative, witty, or gregarious, but if you can't rebound from setbacks, you're not going to be happy.

I'm no Annette, but I've gotten more resilient over the years. There are times I feel like my younger brother's Popeye punching bag, which would tip back when you whacked it, then bounce up again. But as I think of that image, I realize that Popeye bounced back because Popeye (or at least the punching-bag version) was well-grounded. His center of gravity gave him resilience.

Which leads me to think that resilience and self-talk and being well-grounded are closely related. We have to know what we believe is true and essential in life, or else we can't hold on to it and yearn for it and return to it when we're down.


  1. I'd say too that learning how to not hold a grudge, or learning to let them go, goes along with that resilience.

  2. One of my favorite sayings:
    Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.