Over the past few weeks I have been looking at the elements that help to build resilience in life: community, legacy, spirituality, and gratitude. The final factor in building a strong, resilient life is service. If you want to build a happy, healthy life, you need to get out of yourself and into the lives of others.

 Over the last three decades I have had an opportunity to get to know many resilient women. Some I have known very closely. Some I have only met or learned about through their memoirs. When I consider their example, service to others is a constant theme. All of them came from fairly ordinary, even humble  backgrounds. But within their own contexts, they all found ways to love and serve others.

 For example, right until her death Elizabeth was a dedicated volunteer in both church and community, sharing generously of her wisdom and mentoring many women like myself; Shirley cared lovingly for her grandchildren, who included I am happy to say my own four children who were not part of her biological family; Rena worked tirelessly to help our Indigenous relations and also made her voice heard in the cause of Amnesty International; Anna refused to let her community forget the horrors of the Holocaust and in her service as mayor kept the cause of peace and environmental justice front and centre; and Jean (Augustine) worked and continues to work tirelessly to end systemic racism and injustice in our society. She also  played a key role in establishing February as Black History Month in Canada.

          In an address that the famous missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer once gave to a class of students graduating from university, he said: “The only ones of you who will be truly happy in life are those of you who seek and find a way to serve.” He might have said: “The only ones of you who will be truly resilient in life are those of you who seek and find a way to serve.”      

So community, legacy, spirituality, gratitude, and service – five  practices that are the hallmark of a strong, healthy, resilient life. These are all practices that everyone of us can learn. To quote Catherine DeVrye, “like tiny seeds with potent power, we can push through tough ground and become mighty trees, for we hold innate reserves of unimaginable strength. We are resilient.”

Before I close today, I want to let you know that this will be my last blog for a while. On May 1st, I begin a three-month sabbatical followed by a month of holidays in August. This will be a time of learning and discernment as I pursue studies in pastoral leadership and theology at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, as well as a time for much needed rest and renewal.  I wish you all a safe, relaxing and enjoyable spring and summer and look forward to seeing you again in September. Making time for rest is also key to building personal resilience so I hope you will build some rest into your life into the coming months too!

Thank you: Two Little Words that Have Great Power

The fourth factor that contributes to a strong, resilient life is related to spirituality, which we discussed last week. I call this practice gratitude. Psychologists tell us that the expression of gratitude is a kind of meta strategy for building personal resilience and achieving happiness. Those of you who keep a gratitude journal will know what I mean.

First, the practice of gratitude can help us to re-frame those experiences in life that cause us distress or anxiety. Instead of focussing on the deep loneliness that many of us felt during Covid, for example, some have sought to look at the positive things that emerged from this experience, like more time for personal reflection and prayer, the development of patience, finding creative new ways to connect with people, and even spending more time in nature.

Think of gratitude as an anti-dote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry and irritation. So, it’s much bigger and broader than simply saying thank you for a gift, or a nice compliment, or when someone has passed you the butter!

The world’s most prominent researcher and writer about gratitude, Robert Emmons, defines it as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”  Dr. Anne Beattie-Stokes writes that “gratitude awakens us to beauty, to wonder, to love, to ourselves, and to others.”

When you think of it, two little words can have tremendous power for good: Thank You!

Spirituality: The Most Important Ingredient in a Strong, Resilient Life

In the interviews I have conducted over the years with various women, by far the most significant practice in dealing successfully with aging is spirituality. I would say that this has also been my experience with men.

Even though they were from different denominations, the faith community was integral to the lives of all the people I have studied. For each of them spirituality was a vital component of their resiliency. It’s not that being spiritually strong prevented problems or anxieties from arising. For many it simply meant that fear did not have the last word. Each of them had worries, but they did not get stuck in their anxieties. That’s the key: in spite of multiple losses and daily concerns, they did not “get stuck” in their worries and fears or regrets.

Again, when I talk about spirituality I am not talking about any particular religion or denomination. However, study after study does affirm that participation in a faith community can be a strong support to people undergoing various crises or personal difficulties. Dr. Jeff Levin, a biomedical scientist, asserts that “formal involvement in religious communities reduces the likelihood of experiencing stressors such as chronic and acute illness, marital tension and dissolution, and work-related and legal problems.”

Both public and private prayer are also important. Today many people, both religious and non-religious folks, have experienced enhanced self-esteem through the practice “mindfulness meditation”.

But there’s more. Duke University psychiatrist Harold G. Koenig says that by offering people hope, spirituality helps people to re-frame distressing life experiences and build personal resilience.  The Season of Easter, which we move into next Sunday, is really the perfect time to reframe the negative aspects of our lives. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything because it promises that this life, with its sorrow and disappointment, is not the end. Moreover, the Good News of Easter challenges us to work for a world where all are treated with love and compassion, and the whole of creation is cared for and respected.

Resiliency: The Second Practice – Tell Your Story!

         Over the past couple of weeks I have been talking about building resiliency in the second half of life. I noted that relationships or “community” are key to one’s emotional and physical health, and, while women tend to score better in the area of building a good network of friends, this is something that is essential for all people.

The second practice I would invite you to consider is your legacy to those who follow you. Most resilient people I have known have engaged in some form of storytelling, whether they actually wrote their memoirs down or not. Some have enjoyed scrapbooking or putting together special photo albums. Others have created beautiful quilts which tell the story of their lives. Still others have found the creation of a personal autobiography to be especially beneficial in their later years. It has helped them to reflect on where they have been and enabled them to make sense of those times in their lives  when they experienced pain, or disappointment, or grief.

Here’s something else you should know. Studies also show that reviewing your life story can improve your physical resilience and emotional well-being too. Reviewing your life story can lower your blood pressure and strengthen your immune system. Plus, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence in the published scientific literature that affirms that “life review” is of tremendous help to people experiencing grief. According to University of Texas professor James Pennebaker, not only does it lower levels of depression, but it is also found to increase problem-solving skills and self-esteem while assisting in the grief process. Like community, sharing your story or legacy is one of those life-giving nutrients that Estes talks about, which enables you to grow your resiliency.

Incidentally, for those of you who have grandchildren or great-nieces and nephews, studies carried out at Emory University have shown that sharing your life story actually has a beneficial impact on your family. And contrary to what you might think, stories about family members who have struggled in life and who have overcome difficulties are often more helpful than are ‘happily ever after’ tales. Robyn Fivush, the Emory psychologist who headed up the study says, “Families who tell family stories have kids who are doing better.”

However, you choose to tell your life story, the key is “just do it!”