I won’t lie. The past year has been more difficult than I like.
What or who sustains you during difficult days and periods of life?
For me, resilience (i.e., the capacity to persevere, to re-engage life with hope and a sense of meaning) and contentedness, most often occur when I’m reminded or become aware of and appreciate the small, less significant or successful realities in life. Acceptance of reality is posited by most resilience “experts” as a primary characteristic of resilient people.
Much as I would prefer (like any sane person) to leapfrog to emotional happiness or vocational and material success, I realize that life achievement and attainment rarely occurs instantaneously.
Contentedness, meaning, resilience are most often discovered and attained by small, incremental, and intentional changes (tweaks) in one’s daily life. They often assume a tedious appearance, like hand washing dishes, cleaning up a messy house, or garden work. And the “miraculous” is frequently discovered amidst the mundane – even if the “miracle” is nothing more than a slight change of attitude, which in turn might result in the capacity to relate more warmly to people or re-engage important tasks and responsibilities.
A helpful analogy for me of the importance of “small” in surviving, thriving and resilience building is that of flight and piloting (no, I’m not a pilot). My middle and high school years were spent at a boarding school in Kenya. For most of that time my family lived in Tanzania. My school operated on the British calendar, meaning we attended school for three months, followed by a one month vacation, and so forth. On many occasions I flew to and from school by a single engine Cessna plane. Critical to ensuring a plane arrives intact and at the intended destination – at my school, this meant an extremely short, sheer, and knotty grassed sloped runway on the side of a hill overlooking the Great Rift Valley – are a litany of small and corrective instrumentation adjustments the pilot has to make in-flight in order to adjust to air traffic, wind gusts, thunderstorms, headwinds and geo thermals. IMPORTANT: Big and quick adjustments BAD (remember the Air France jet that went down over the Atlantic a few years ago, killing 188+). Small and frequent adjustments GOOD.
A personal example from postgraduate study days. I remember how overwhelmed I felt on many occasions. Despair hit most frequently at the start of a semester after receiving course requirements. Syllabi combined with a nagging sense of comparative inadequacy – i.e., compared to most of my colleagues, who were fresh out of Master’s studies, and who outwardly at least “played the postgraduate student role” better than me.
Thankfully my wife on many late evening walks reminded me of several important things:
First, things are seldom what they seem on the surface. That is – don’t be fooled by the apparent “got it togetherness” of others.
Secondly, focus on small, measurable, and attainable steps – don’t anxiously or despairingly fixate on what seems insurmountable. The insurmountable, then, were multiple, 25-plus page research papers, presentations, working to earn a living, plus, my role and responsibilities as husband and father. In other words, break the overwhelming down into small, manageable “chunks,” and focus on completing one “chunk” at a time.
The small, perhaps mundane moments of my life these days as I wait patiently for a meaningful full-time work opportunity to arise (after choosing to be un- and under-employed and assume primary home manager role for the past three years so my wife could return to school for a graduate nursing degree), provide a rhythmic regularity and a motivating impulse, that, depending upon the day and mood, provide either a reminder of life’s gift or of life’s struggles.
The past two weeks have mostly been “beyond mundane” because my family of eight (including my eldest daughter’s husband) have shared time together. Speaking of family, in 2007 I attended a friend from Mozambique’s funeral. At the graveside, I reconnected with a mutual friend, a school principal at a school in Malamulele, South Africa. I asked about his family, to which he responded, “Scott, we are well. I have five children.” I said, “Really! My wife and I also have five children.” Mr. Manganye then replied, “Scott, someone once told me that you are blessed if you can fill up all the fingers of one hand (with children).” He then paused for effect, before concluding, “The same person then said to me, ‘Do you have the courage to go to the next hand!?'” It was a humorous story that caused me to laugh, but also communicated a distinctive African value – life and meaning is fundamentally interconnected with relationships, community, and family. And the West used to (still frequently does) think of Africa and Africans as primitive! Btw – I like what an African theologian once said about the West’s perception of Africa as “primitive.” He said: “I like to think of primitive as purity.” Amen to that.
Family isn’t always available or enough on certain days. That’s when any number of other “small” things in life must provide sufficient measure of perspective to engage life.
Over the past two months a personal example is a small screech-owl that has made his home in our adolescent red oak tree, rooted in our front yard, just outside the kitchen window. My middle daughter affectionately named him Chester. Chester likes to split his time with us and some unknown other family. With regularity, he flies in for two to five days, disappears for the same number of days, and then reappears to perch the entire day on the EXACT same branch. His silhouette each daybreak brings great joy to my excitement starved family!
You may not have a screech-owl in your front yard, but I bet you have any number of small, seemingly insignificant and mundane other “realities” in your life, which you’re prone to overlook and disregard, but which, if you’ll let them, could provide you with endless simple pleasures from which your life could benefit. If your neighborhood is anything like mine, you’ll likely have a variety of interesting looking neighbors who regularly walk by with their dogs, or a deer, lost and wondering to himself who the hell put all these houses where previously it was just scrub brush and giant oak trees.