The emotions of resilience

e·mo·tion/noun: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others

More than a year ago as the world fell into the depths of the Covid pandemic I wasn’t always sure what I was feeling day to day.

And now, as we seem to be emerging from it, I am again on a rollercoaster, although it is less scary than the one before.

Here are a few things that recently evoked an emotional response in me:

“Shall I say we rejoiced as the conviction grew in man and beast that the Plague was truly gone from us? No, we did not rejoice. For the losses were too many and the damage to our spirits too profound. For every one of us who still walked upon the Earth, two of us lay under it. Everywhere we went, we passed by the sorry, makeshift graves of our friends and neighbors. We were all of us also exhausted, for each person who lived had, in the course of the year, taken up the duties and tasks of two or three of the dead. Some days, even the effort of thought seemed burdensome.” — Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

“Much of what was taken for granted then—the breezy confidence that life would be normal again by, well, maybe June?—has faded from memory. Adjusting to the unprecedented, we have instant amnesia for the unimaginable. So much that seemed impossible has happened, and yet as each thing happened it registered as merely the next thing happening….

“Much of the emotion is like what must be felt at the end of a tsunami: the great wave came, washed over everything, and now has pulled back and we can inspect the beach.” New Yorker

“[M]any people are still struggling with the emotional toll of pandemic life. The Household Pulse Survey, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that as of mid-May, almost a third of Americans (30.7 percent) were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. While that number was down from a peak of about 42 percent in November, it’s still alarmingly high. In 2019, about 11 percent of adults in the United States had similar symptoms.” —New York Times

“[T]he rhetoric of individual resilience [regarding the pandemic] can often be used to plaster over institutional failures: the shortage of mental-health-care providers, the labyrinthine insurance system, the lack of support from employers, the stigma around seeking care at all, and the societal tendency to bottle grief.”The Atlantic

While Geraldine Brooks’ novel tells us about life inside a self-quarantined village in England during the bubonic plague of 1665–1666, the exhaustion she expressed resonated with me. 

Likewise, there was something of importance in each of the passages above that caused me to want to share it with you.

Which perspective, if any, best captures your thoughts and feelings or what you are noticing around you as the pandemic begins to ease, or in what other ways would you describe what you are experiencing?

Preserving resilience: “What’s remembered lives”

sto·ry/noun: an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something

“What’s remembered lives,” Fern, a character in “Nomadland,” says, offering her view on the loss of loved ones.

I thought about that observation when I heard an NPR report about a World War II veteran who recently received a Purple Heart Medal 80 years after being wounded in battle.

While the story itself was interesting, even more compelling for me was the backstory of how a daughter got her father to talk about the war decades later after his persistent refusal to do so, a not uncommon experience among those of us who had fathers of that era who also did not want to share their experiences.

“I started asking him questions, and he clammed up,” the daughter said.

“Then she had an idea,” the story continued. “She bought him a cassette recorder and asked him to tape his whole story. What she got and turned into a homemade YouTube documentary is an American classic.”

Shortly after that I heard another NPR story in which Jason Burt, a California history teacher, uncovered in an attic recordings of his grandfather playing trumpet during World War II in the 746th Far East Air Force Band in the Philippines, an experience that his grandfather described years earlier in an oral history (the recordings may be the only known audio documentation of a frontline military band during the war).

“[W]e’d always known about these recordings. Like, my grandpa talked about them his whole life, and I was kind of hoping they would turn up at some point. And we found them in the attic…. I put the music on, and it was like my own private concert with my grandpa. It was like he’d never left.”

Burt digitized and published the recordings in an album titled “Sentimental Journey.”

The story concluded: “Jason Burt’s goal is for his grandpa’s band to win a Grammy in 2022 for best historical album.”

These stories caused me to reflect more deeply about my experiences over the past decade as a hospice volunteer in supporting more than 50 families in capturing irreplaceable life stories in video or audio recording, recollections that were often about overcoming adversity.

It is a truism among hospice staff and volunteers that they learn more from their patients than they give, and that was certainly true for me as I listened to story after story of individuals who persevered through wars, racial discrimination and violence, extreme poverty, physical handicaps, and other seemingly overwhelming challenges.

In addition to what I learned about resilience from these patients and their families, my experiences have taught me the most effective ways to elicit such stories from our elders and others.

Here’s what I learned:

1. For various reasons individuals are often uncomfortable talking about their own lives. It is not uncommon for them to say something like, “There must be other people who have more important things to say than me.” Or they simply may not wish to relive difficult times, like the veteran in the NPR story.

To address that issue, I found that a request from a family member, especially grandchildren, or an outsider like myself, often overcame that reticence. 

2. In my experience the most powerful stories emerged in conversations between an individual and one or more family members or friends, discussions that would often head in unexpected and often profound directions.

That’s why I encouraged “interviewers” to both prepare questions in advance, that they often solicited from other family members, and to take advantage of unanticipated turns in the conversation which later may prove to be the most memorable and valued part of the recording.

3. Simple recording devices like smart phones are almost always more than sufficient and sometimes more effective then more obtrusive devices like larger video cameras. Place the device on a convenient nearby surface, like a table top or arm of a chair, and click “record.” People inevitably becomes less self-conscious as they forget that the conversation is being recorded. It is also possible to buy inexpensive lavaliere-style microphones to improve the quality of the audio recording.

4. Be prepared for opportune moments. If someone begins telling stories around the dinner table or elsewhere, smart phones or other devices are almost always within easy reach and can be activated quickly.

5. It is possible to use simple and inexpensive smart phone applications, like Voice Record, to edit and splice together recordings from various points in time.

6. Use as many means as possible to return the recorded story to the storyteller and family members through audio or video files, DVDs, or easily accessible YouTube accounts.

7. The most important thing is to “Just do it!” The moment may not come again.

What voices and stories do you want to record before the opportunity may be lost?

Managing emotional and physical energy across a career

en·er·gy/noun: the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity

One crucial but often unrecognized aspect of resilience is educators’ ability to manage the high levels of emotional and physical energy required across decades-spanning careers, a challenge that has been intensified by the pandemic.

Such resilience has a number of sources:

Good health is obviously fundamental. Without physical and emotional health, it is difficult to sustain the energy required throughout the day and across a school year. While aging may take a toll on that energy, many educators remain vital into their 60s and beyond, with a few even reaching their 70s and even 80s.

Viewing teaching as a calling, not just as an occupation (see previous post). While the occupation of teaching provides many tangible and intangible benefits, my experience has been that teachers and administrators who experience their work as a calling are better able to sustain high levels of energy during difficult times.

Competency. We are more motivated to do things when we feel competent doing them. Career-long professional learning in various forms is essential to that competency.

Positive professional relationships. Such relationships are particularly powerful when they are established through strong teamwork within cultures of continuous improvement.

Emotional positivity. Because emotions are contagious, the overall emotional health of the school community is an important factor in career-long resilience.

Continuous cycles of goal setting and planning. Such practices and routines create and sustain energy and momentum across the weeks of a school year and between school years.

Successfully managing the overlap between the personal and professional spheres of life. Educators’ work often extends beyond the school day in the form of planning, marking papers, and evening meetings. In addition, teachers and administrators inevitably bring home the problems faced by students and their families and the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden challenges that are part of their daily work. And during the pandemic, the classrooms and homes of many teachers have been the same place.

What have your personal and professional lives taught you about sustaining energy across many years and decades?

What is the role of education in solving America’s problems?

prob·lem/noun: a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome

An article of faith for the past century or more is that schooling is the solution, or at least a big part of the solution, to problems such as poverty, racism, climate change, and the preservation of democracy, among many others.

I recently came across two essays offering somewhat contrasting views on this subject.

In the first, Joe Helms argues for a massive investment in social studies and civics education “to address eroding trust in democratic institutions.”

He describes the problem this way: “For many close observers, a direct line can be drawn from today’s civics crises to a long-standing failure to adequately teach American government, history and civic responsibility. Breadth has been emphasized over depth, they say, and the cost is a citizenry largely ignorant of the work needed to sustain a democracy.”

Citing a report from Education for American Democracy, Helms writes:

“‘Civics and history education has eroded in the U.S. over the past fifty years, and opportunities to learn these subjects are inequitably distributed,’” the report states. ‘Dangerously low proportions of the public understand and trust our democratic institutions. Majorities are functionally illiterate on our constitutional principles and forms. The relative neglect of civic education in the past half-century—a period of wrenching change—is one important cause of our civic and political dysfunction.’

“The report calls for an inquiry-based approach that would focus less on memorizing dates of wars and names of presidents and more on exploring in depth the questions and developments, good and bad, that have created the America we live in today and plan to live in well beyond the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.

“The new focus on educating students to become more knowledgeable citizens calls for an investment in teacher training, curriculum development and an approach that would emphasize teaching of history and civics to the same degree as STEM and English language arts courses.

Making the case for a more limited role of schools in solving difficult social problems, educational historian Larry Cuban explains our faith in the power of education this way:

“[E]ach generation of reformers believed in their hearts that they could solve thorny social, political, and economic problems. They knew what had to be done and had the answers. Public schools, they held, were the chief, if not the sole, determiner of individual and national success. Schooling was the great equalizer shaping the life journey that individual children and youth traveled. Mirroring the deeply embedded and traditional belief that American institutions can, indeed, make people better, the school, like the church and family, was an instrument for not only reforming individuals and institutions but also curing societal ills such as illiteracy, poverty, and economic slowdowns…..

“For true believers, schooling improves everyone regardless of family circumstances. Yet, (and this is a very big “yet”) much evidence has piled up over the past century that social class matters on who sails through age-graded schools and who stumbles along the way….

“[T]he research literature on children’s academic performance has shown time and again that anywhere from over half to two-thirds of minority and white students’ test scores—lower, middle, and upper class–can be attributed to a family’s socioeconomic background.”

I agree with Education for American Democracy that civics can be better taught, but so, too, can science and critical thinking, particularly in the discernment of valid information sources, to name just two curricular areas.

Which means that more and better professional learning is required in those areas.

I also agree with Cuban that socioeconomic forces are too strong to be overcome by schools alone.

And I think it likely that Helms and Cuban would agree that while teaching and learning can be improved, schools alone cannot solve this country’s most intractable problems.

The unintended consequence of both points of view, unfortunately, is that without skillful leadership they can cause teachers and administrators to feel overwhelmed and powerless.

While schools have an essential role to play in solving complex, long-standing problems, business and political leaders and policy makers at all levels of government, among others, must step up to their civic and moral responsibilities in addressing poverty, racism, and the underfunding of public education, among other pressing issues.

What role do you think schools should play in solving such problems?

Is teaching a moral enterprise?

mor·al/adjective: holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct

Educational historian Larry Cuban recently said this about the moral obligations of teaching:

“In teaching we display our views of knowledge and learning, we advertise our ideas, how we reason, and how we struggle with moral choices whether we intend to or not. To teach is to enlist in a technical, morally based vocation, not an occupation and certainly not just a job. Technical competence, as important as it is in teaching, is insufficient to make a whole teacher or a complete student. It fails to capture the fundamental moral obligations of teaching the young….

“Questions of what is fair, right, and just arise constantly in classrooms; students learn moral sensibilities from how their teachers answer those questions….”

Do you agree that teaching is a moral enterprise, a vocation not just an occupation?


eu·re·ka/noun: a cry of joy or satisfaction when one finds or discovers something

e·piph·a·ny/noun: an experience of a sudden and striking realization

Have you ever had an experience that suddenly and irrevocably changed how you thought about something, a eureka moment?

In Leading for Results I describe such “breakthrough thinking” as a change in view regarding a particular subject after which everything related to that subject is viewed in a fresh and more empowering way. 

In the LFR’s introductory chapter, I refer to Marlo Thomas book, The Right Words at the Right Time, which offers director Mike Nichols’s description of breakthroughs in his life: “Two or three times in my life I have read or heard something that seemed in a moment to change me so palpably that I actually  heard or felt a click, a sound, tumblers falling into place. . . . [I]t is simply the experience of becoming somebody slightly different, somebody new, the next you.”

Breakthroughs may seem to occur in an instant, although preparation for them usually occurs through an accumulation of experience and knowledge. 

For instance, years ago a participant in a Minnesota workshop on professional learning told  the group about a university professor who used a memorable phrase that stuck with her through the years: “The person who does the work does the learning.” Likewise, that single sentence captured for me many things I believed about teaching and learning but had been unable to express so clearly and concisely.

Eureka moments are almost always the result of previous learning which spontaneously combines itself in unexpected ways. That rigorous intellectual “work” includes activities such as the close reading of articles and books that expand our thinking, “perturbing” dialogues with others whose authentic views contradict some of our most strongly held assumptions and practices, and other experiences that take us out of our comfort zones.

In your experience what are the best ways to nurture breakthrough thinking? Have you ever experienced a professional epiphany that changed how you thought about teaching, learning, and/or leadership?

How do we influence those with whom we have fundamental disagreements?

dis·a·gree·ment/noun: lack of consensus or approval

The short answer is: We can’t, at least if influencing requires a guaranteed favorable outcome (for example, the other person agreeing with you with no acrimony).

While the opportunities for such conversations seem to be all around us, human beings are amazingly resistant to having their minds changed, particularly when their fundamental beliefs are challenged. (For example, we are in this together vs. personal responsibility.)

Perhaps that resistance is a perverse sort of resilience that somehow allowed our ancient ancestors to survive.

I am less confident about what works than I am about what doesn’t work: Public shaming which hardens resistance and a reliance on rational arguments when even the most basic facts are in dispute.

A realistic view is that, under the right conditions, we have limited influence over others and success is unpredictable.

In my experience resilient people sense the most opportune moments to engage in challenging conversations and have the ability to navigate differences in ways that maximize their influence while preserving and even strengthening relationships.

They understand:

• that people in general are less influenced by facts, evidence, and reasoning than by stories, images, and experiences that bypass the cognitive biases that affect many of our views and decisions.

• the power of “improvisational conversation” to shape beliefs and attitudes with empathy is at the heart of such conversations.

• the value of listening to understand deeply without a desire to influence, a practice that may seem counterintuitive, but is essential given that most people resist efforts to change us.

• the value of whenever possible patiently waiting for a sign that others wish to engage in difficult conversations, which can provide an opportunity for “the right words at the right time” while recognizing that such a time may never come.

In addition to these more abstract ideas, there are concrete, practical things we can do that are within our circle of influence, like these suggestions from Jamie Sussel Turner:

• “Accept People for Who They are: My mother often gave me this wise advice when I’d complain to her about a friend. I can still hear her saying, ‘Accept your friends for who they are or move on and let go of the friendship.’

  “Agree to Disagree: Often the best we can hope for is to reach a mutual understanding of our differing points of view. Saying aloud, ‘I guess we are just going to agree to disagree,” can be one of the calmest ways to bring an intense conversation to a close.’”

Resilience requires both skillfulness in doing what we can and acknowledging the limits of our power and influence.

Loretta J. Ross put it this way in a New York Times op-ed piece: “You can’t be responsible for someone else’s inability to grow. So take comfort in the fact that you offered a new perspective of information and you did so with love and respect, and then you walk away.”

What have you learned about the challenges and benefits of addressing conflicts in ways that lead to mutual understanding and strengthen relationships?

What we can learn about resilience from high-endurance athletes

en·dur·ance/noun: the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way

I have seldom considered the particular kind of resilience required to compete in demanding, extreme sports such as ultramarathons and mountain climbing. 

That’s why I was especially interested in a New York Times article that described the qualities of mental endurance cultivated by such athletes.

Here are a few things that were mentioned that I think are applicable to all parts of our lives:

• Set daily mini-goals en route to larger goals to feel a sense of purpose and to experience the success that builds and sustains momentum.

• Create structures and routines that free us from the psychic costs of constant decision making regarding what will be done next and of constant demands those decisions make on our will power, which is a limited resource.

• Focus on new goals, experiences, and hobbies that strengthen our ability to adapt and to be present. Be prepared to adapt and to continue adapting.

Many things, such as the items in this list, are obviously important but difficult to implement—hence the term “knowing-doing gap”—which applies to many parts of our personal and professional lives.

There are other significant gaps between activity and accomplishment and between busyness and high performance.

Some things matter far more than others, and, in my experience resilient people focus their energy in those high impact areas, like the ones listed above, rather than activities that make them feel busy while adding little or nothing to the accomplishment of their goals.

What would you add to this list?

Is trust is a precondition for empathy?

trust/noun: a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something

I think the answer is, yes, or at least having sufficient trust to reveal enough of ourselves so that empathy can occur. It is difficult to disclose yourself to people you don’t trust.

I think of trust as having two key components—being perceived as telling the truth and being reliable, that is, doing what you say you will do.

But it is obviously a bit more complex than that.

So I found this recent essay by former Secretary of State George Schultz, who turned 100 a couple of months before he died in February, particularly noteworthy in understanding the importance of trust. 

About trust, Schultz wrote:

“I’ve learned much over that time, but looking back, I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, whatever room that was — the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room — good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details….”

Schultz tells a story about story telling:

“One day, as secretary of state in the Reagan administration, I brought a draft foreign policy speech to the Oval Office for Reagan to review. He read the speech and said, “That’s fine,” but then began marking it up. In the margin on one page, he wrote “story.” I asked what he meant. “That’s the most important point,” he said. Adding a relevant story will “engage your readers. That way, you’ll appeal not only to their minds but to their emotions.” Telling a story, he made me understand, helps make your case in a way that no abstraction can: A story builds an emotional bond, and emotional bonds build trust.”

Schultz concludes:

“Trust is fundamental, reciprocal and, ideally, pervasive. If it is present, anything is possible. If it is absent, nothing is possible. The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and you know what happens as a result? Their followers trust them back. With that bond, they can do big, hard things together, changing the world for the better.”

What is your experience with the link between trust, empathy, and the ability of people to “do big, hard things together”?

The challenge of empathy when we want to argue

ar·gu·ment/ˈnoun: an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one

Earlier I described empathy as a primary means by which we cultivate group resilience.

Empathy has many meanings, but my very simple working definition is the ability to discern and communicate the experiences and perspectives of others to the extent that they feel truly and deeply understood.

For many of us it is almost impossible to engage in discussions of important political and social issues with those with whom we disagree without having the conversation quickly devolve into an unproductive and unsatisfying argument. 

As someone once put it, an argument is when you have two senders and no receivers, which is an apt description of what sometimes happens when people on otherwise friendly terms discuss controversial, emotionally-laden topics. 

So we avoid those conversations by taking the “path of least resistance,” which also means we are unable to find the common ground that empathy may provide.

Emotionally resilient people have the sophisticated ability to deeply understand the perspectives of others in ways that build relationships.

Like cultural anthropologists, empathic people strive to objectively describe what they observe while demonstrating a thorough understanding and respect for the feelings, views, and experiences of others.

To that end they listen fully without judgment and are able to summarize the perspectives of others so accurately that they feel deeply understood.

Empathy does not necessarily require withholding one’s point of view or pseudo-agreement. But it does mean committed listening when strong emotions urge us to speak, a form of listening more likely to occur when conversations are slow and thoughtful to minimize reactive exchanges.

The bundle of skills and attributes required for empathy include the patience to allow others to fully express themselves without interruption, the ability to listen carefully without judgment or a desire to make the other person wrong, and the capacity to describe what you learned in ways that enable others to feel like someone “gets them” without necessarily agreeing with them.

None of this is easy, of course, which is why we don’t see a lot more empathy in our daily lives.

Fortunately, each of us with intention and practice can move in the direction of greater empathy. (My next post will further explore this topic.)

What has your life and work taught you about empathy and the challenges and benefits of practicing it?

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