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resilience

Unsteady steps

Lambs, Yorkshire, April 2018.

When I travel, it’s inevitable that I carry with me my own ways of thinking. I hold thoughts together with the beliefs and assumptions I grew up with, amalgamated with the various encounters I’ve had along the way. My suitcase looks like it has been rather bashed around, like it’s got into a fight in the aeroplane’s hold and limped into baggage reclaim. My ways of thinking are, perhaps, similarly bashed. I encounter people who do life differently, who find me odd, remark upon what I believe are ordinary habits and good-naturedly try and correct my course. I’m undoubtedly enriched by this attention. I find people who go ‘huh’ at my beliefs, which makes me question my beliefs, which leads to the crumbling of the superfluous and the taking root of the solid. Obviously, for the most part, the cultures I encounter are all shaped by the same capitalism, however, inevitably, they have all taken different journeys, been scarred in different ways and are paying the price of greed (theirs or someone else’s) with varying attitudes. Some struggles are familiar; others are new to me. But even when we live similarly, we do so having arrived with different perceptions.

To travel, open to changing our ideas, means that we can, as much as perhaps is possible, teach ourselves to bend: to travel with closed minds just wreaks havoc on the peoples and places we encounter. Assuming we’re open to learning, travelling makes reframing our situation easier. Or, it makes the reframing harder to avoid. It builds cognitive dissonance. When outside our own bubble, we walk into stereotypes and land flat on our faces. This can be hugely helpful. When we travel, we are merely people passing through someone else’s society, sometimes it’s easier to be honest to a stranger. Strangers ask questions of us, they are curious about our foreignness, our exoticness. It’s also easier for them to ignore a stranger, proving that we’re not quite so important as we might have thought. Either way, people we meet travelling tend to bring attention to our weirdness with eager fascination immune to any idea that we might be embarrassed by their idea of us. Presented with such insight, we can then choose what we do with it.

People often ask me why I’m so desperate to return to Chile, especially Chileans who themselves crave to come to Europe or Canada. I find this a hard question to answer because the motivation is complex. Part of it is anger. I planned to stay in Chile and the fates forced me to wait. Part of it is that I liked being in Chile. I had no idea what was going on around me, but people kept being nice and I woke up in the mornings glad I was where I was. Part of it however is also a sense that I was learning a lesson that’s incomplete. I was building relationships in Chile; I was developing my understanding of the city I lived in (which liked to trip me up of a regular basis); and I was learning I was both privileged and irrelevant. Things that are handy to understand.

I thought, after being raped and going through therapy that I’d learnt a lot about humility. I thought I understood humility. I thought that having visited hell once in my lifetime I’d climbed out of the hole and was back on solid ground. I felt my feet were firmly planted. What I hadn’t realised was that the ground beneath me was artificial, built on a belief in security which, being born into privilege, I have and which, I swiftly discovered, was not so assured for all of my friends. In fact, in Chile, I was the odd one out because my ability to imagine the worst was so undeveloped. In Chile, I found my education a novelty, a mere bauble, and that my knowledge was, in many fields, non-existent.

A flaw, perhaps, was that my own therapy, which I am ever so grateful for, was predominantly about me. I had to change the language I used to describe myself so that I did not focus on what had been lost, or what I had failed to gain (especially in terms of societal status) but instead on what I could currently do. My healing was predominantly (but not only) a process of individual healing. People around me were affected by my situation, but their healing too was predominantly individualised. They learnt how to look after themselves and I learned how to look after myself. The humility I learnt and the strength of that inner core of self-faith which I developed were focused on me and my strength. Therapy taught me about personal boundaries, it taught me to look after myself as an individual and be generous with my own self-respect. It taught me that my strength to analyse was useful in appropriate doses, but that it could also be addictive and damaging to my well-being. It taught me to respect my emotions, but also to stand up to them, look after them and take care not to encourage them to develop into bad behaviours which negatively impacted me. It taught me about me.

In Chile, however, I think my understanding started to grow from this idea of humility as an individual to humility as humanity and that resilience is stronger when it is held in the connections between people rather than in the individuals themselves. I’m not saying that there’s anything particular about it being Chile where I observed this, and I learnt it as much from Venezuelans as Chileans, but that for me, as an outsider in an unstable environment, surrounded by difference, there was an impact.

In Chile I came face to face with beliefs which were not comfortable. They were often softly spoken, but they seemed to challenge me with the opportunity of dialogue, if only I were brave enough to take the opportunity, if only I had the humility to listen and to listen attentively and with affection. In Chile I learnt that I had to start over with humility and that I was no where near done, but also that the world was also much richer than I had imagined and I so much more malleable. In Chile I started noticing how much I take for granted and how much power I have with my choices. In Chile, I constantly failed to ask the right questions. Frequently I tangled myself in my insecurities about my Spanish or simply lacked courage, or other times, I was so in shock that I was unable to respond. Frequently that shock was in response to people’s kindness or generosity. It began to strike me how much I was receiving and how little I was giving. In Chile I was, more often than not, stumped. And I carried on, fumbling through my days, clutching at questions I couldn’t answer, wondering whether my presence was harmful or benign. But then I began to realise I was learning and that through the power of my own curiosity, I’d enrolled onto a course that required more stamina than any academic PhD.

I fought to stay and I failed.

And it felt a bit like running out of time in an exam, with me screaming please, let me finish, I know I seem stupid, but I’m sure given a bit longer, I’m going to understand. And if what I can see of the world, through my Chilean eyes, is incomprehensible then maybe I’ll learn to accept it, but please, more time, more time, more time.

How English of me. How linear my thinking. The resilience is in the relationship, not the individual, and the fact that I am in England is temporary and irrelevant. What I want is not something that can be clung to. There is no pass, no fail. When I come back home, I look at myself amongst my own culture and am grateful. It’s a thank you, and can I share this with you. I’m present and I’m listening. Healing is in the generosity and the gratitude. These concepts are not stationary points, they flow and connect.

Resilience and holding out

Inka walls, Peru, January 2020
Inka walls, near Cusco, Peru, January 2020

I heard the kettle begin to boil and as I battered my way into consciousness tried to recall where I was, somewhere south of Santiago I thought, but the letters of the name of the town were shuffling around in my mind and I couldn’t focus on the word. I heard the Mother, I knew it was the Mother, and I tried to connect the dots… I struggled, the name of the town seemed important somehow and my mum was there.

What was the Mother doing there?

Surprised, I realized that I was in my parents’ house, which is not south of Santiago in Chile, but in Yorkshire in England. I remembered it was winter. How had I forgotten? Maybe the sun was shining in my dreams. It’s not unusual for me to wake up and not immediately know which city I’m in. But now? Here? I am not just passing through; I’ve been here since May. The kettle finished its boil and I fell back asleep, dreaming now of cheese and pickle sandwiches.

This time last year it was hot

I wandered the streets of Santiago hiding in the shade during the midday heat and always carrying my flask filled with cold water. Last year was a year of two summers, the first was wondrous, the second a constant downpour. Bless England, it knows how to do wet. This year, if I’m lucky, will be a year of two winters, or perhaps I will winter it out here and move into the land of eternal spring. It’s now out of my control.

Some years ago, I read Victor Frankl’s book on surviving the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, and it’s been that book which has frequently popped into my mind as lockdowns are announced, reduced, increased, reduced again. There is good news and bad news, and both hope and fear, but attaching ourselves too strongly to any date or announcement doesn’t serve us well. A new quarantine is announced but we mustn’t despair. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, who was a psychologist observed that the people who started out positively with the belief that things would be over, and they’d be freed within a matter of months, before Christmas, invariably were less likely to survive. Once Christmas had come and gone, their resilience crumbled.

We just have to hold out until…

The people who, however, had something or someone external to themselves to live for were much more resilient. I have to go back to Chile because I’ve left my coffee pot there. I have to go back to Chile because I owe a friend a hug. I have to go back to Chile because I’m owed a drink. It seems it’s easier to be resilient for a purpose beyond yourself, and when monotony takes hold, where we might not be sure of what day of the week we’re on, having that external purpose matters even more.

For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl

You have to let it happen, but you can’t just expect it to happen

When I was in Germany in the autumn, my dear friend, the Glass-blower, suggested that each day we ought to do something for our future selves. This could be something as simple as saving a little money for a rainy day* or it could be an act of studying or learning something that would better equip us to take advantage of future opportunities. A lot of my motivation for doing yoga comes from my desire to have a physically capable body at the point in the future when I can make use of it. Maybe I’m going nowhere today, but on some tomorrow I want to go hiking in some hills and smell the nature all around me.

Today, therefore, I roll out my yoga mat and put the time in

A lot of resilience I think comes from switching the mind from thinking about the ‘done’ to thinking about the ‘doing’. What am I doing today to look after myself? What am I doing to protect myself? What am I doing to grow? It’s not a counting game. There can be no comparison with either yourself or another individual. Measurement is irrelevant because it’s all about how you think and how you perceive your situation. Are you doing what you need to be doing?

The sun may be shining in my dreams, and elsewhere it may be summer, but here it’s winter and time to get up and have breakfast. The Mother’s making porridge.


* In a country where almost every day is rainy, isn’t this a stupid idiom?

The gods have been playing their games again

Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama.
January 2020.

I wake up some days and stare at myself in the mirror. There’s a dull look in my eyes and I think, here we go again. I feel my thoughts being to roll into paranoia. Sometimes my hands shake from the anxiety of living. My skin is a mess; my stomach clenches tight.

This pattern of behaviour is so familiar it seems almost ridiculous.

In sports people talk about recovery time. This is how long it takes your body to go back to normal after you’ve done exercise. Resilience works on the same principle – it’s not a measure of how far you’ve fallen or how damn bad it hurt, but how quickly you can rock back up to healthy.

I wake up and stare in the mirror and I see myself all ghostlike. The energy is robbed from me. I’m lethargic but I can’t rest. The negative thoughts come. I wonder for how long I’m going to need to grieve. I wonder how much I’ve lost. I wonder how long it will be before I feel generous towards life again. And then, because this is my ingrained training, I do something about it.

And sometimes I feel that my life is a woven patten of me falling in and out of grief time and time again. Things nowadays aren’t so bad though. Each weave is shorter, cleaner. Now I’m more skilled at pulling the threads back up, pulling them together. I remember when the time between feeling good about myself and my life was measured in weeks or months not days.

Every time is hard, but you do get quicker at recovering from setbacks as you become more resilient. I only believe that you can become resilient by doing the hard work, by learning to actively accept and grieve what you’ve lost rather than clinging onto a fantasy of what might have been. I believe that as you learn to recognise your defences you can learn to do yourself and those around you less damage each time you fall. I believe that recognising your coping strategies and being reasonable about them is vital for preventing long term harm.

Some weeks you lose your house, your contract terminates and there’s no way you can get a new visa. Some weeks a friend gets upset because you didn’t fall in love with them and it hurts. Some weeks you say goodbye to someone you fell in love with, not knowing how many months it will be until you are in the same continent again. Some weeks your flight home is cancelled and you find yourself with the prospect of an unexpected three days of crazy, mask wearing adventure to get home, passing through three continents with a bundle of certificates and permissions to evidence the necessity and validity of each step of the journey. Some weeks are more difficult than others.

I wake up some days and I look in the mirror and smile. My hair’s a mess and my skin pink and blotchy. Yet there’s a twinkle in my eye. Look, I’m here, I think. I exist in this mess of a world, but I exist and that is a truly wondrous thing. I smile and turn away from my reflection, ready to fight whatever the gods have chosen to throw at me next.

Resilience: against cold rain, hail and the things that pull us down in life

Resilience
Not easy walking – sand-dunes on the Fisherman’s trail of the Rota Vicentina, Portugal.

It starts raining. I pull the waterproof cover across my bulging rucksack, zip up my coat and pull up my hood. I’m prepared for the shower that comes, but it hits quickly, and all I have on beneath my coat is a t-shirt.

I’m wearing a short stretchy black skirt and a pair of black tights. To me, it’s comfort clothing. Stretchy, dark, doesn’t take much room up in my bag. Not perhaps ideal for a storm.

I soldier on

What an interesting word choice. A military attitude for a holiday walk.

The hail begins, and it strikes my legs. The tights aren’t much protection. I wince, and decide since there’s nothing I can do, I will ignore it.

Protection, that’s a thought, a barrier between the weather and me. My coat is thin, but it keeps what it covers dry. The landscape is open here. Not long before there were masses of trees, but not now.

And the weather continues

Soon, I’m cold. My ankles are wet. My knickers are wet. Then my feet become wet as I wade across a puddle and misjudge a stick that I was relying on supporting me. I sink and I shiver.

Gritting my teeth, I march against the wind.

Until the sun comes out

And, deftly, urgently, I strip off the coat, pull on a cardigan, a jumper, a fleece and then my coat again. I eat a piece of chocolate saved for emergencies. I laugh at the situation, determinedly. To laugh means we’re alright, doesn’t it?

I will not whine, I will not mope, I will not complain.

Perhaps one might criticise me for walking without waterproof trousers? Or for choosing a skirt which left my ankles to become sodden, and tights which were too thin to offer any pain relief to the sharp ice? But nobody will be able to say that I was not strong enough to endure without whimpering. There will be no crying.

Unlike Snowdon

Where, perhaps ten years previously, unfit and undisciplined in my complaining, I moaned about the climb and the snow and the effort it took, and the pointlessness of it all. And then I moaned some more.

Or the Lake District, a few years after that, where, unfit and undisciplined, I let everyone know of my aching limbs and tired body. Every meter of climb that I faced was an ordeal.

But not now

I have learnt that all one needs to internalise the pain. Choose something mundane, like the force of your breath and meditate on it. Breathe in, breathe out. Say nothing. Keep your eyes on the floor. Let the legs ache, the thighs complain. Let the aches and the complaints pass away with the rain.

Nothing is permanent. Sunshine will come. There will be a small café with a toilet in which tights can be changed and dry socks can be swapped for. There will be a strong espresso, with a teaspoon of sugar, no, two espressos. And a sandwich.

Most importantly laugh. Do not cry.

This is what resilience is, isn’t it?

Or is it?

Is resilience acting as if we’d never fallen, never been hurt? Or is it more about recognising the need to eat that bar of chocolate when the time comes?

Without self-compassion does resilience exist, or is it just denial?

I’m starting to think that it’s not the ferocity of the hail that makes you stronger, nor the saturation of your socks. It doesn’t matter how strong the winds were, or how cold the rain was. It’s not about marching on stoically and keeping the ordeal contained.

The chocolate melts in my mouth.