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!”


Last week I mentioned that, in my studies on women and aging, there seemed to be several key factors that contributed to their resilience. The first is community.

 What I am talking about here is the importance of building good social relationships and meaningful friendships. The research shows that women live longer than men because we are much better at social connections. Even joining a walking group, a yoga class, or a book club, or attending regular services at a church, synagogue or mosque, play a significant role in keeping you healthy. We know, for example, that people with a good circle of friends are better able to handle serious illness and many even recover faster if they have a supportive network.

In a book called Aging Well, Harvard scholar George Vaillant, wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for a group of Harvard men who were part of a study that began when they were all young, back in 1938, and which continued into older age. One of these men was the late President John F. Kennedy. The six factors that predicted healthy aging were: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. No surprises there.

What did surprise the researchers was the role that community played in the men’s resilience and ability to age well. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Canadian author and psychologist Susan Pinker agrees. She argues that social gatherings are critical to our resiliency and well-being, especially as we age. Indeed, the lack of close personal friendships may shorten our lives faster than cigarettes, salt, sugar and animal fat.[1] Real time, face to face contact, can help us to live healthier and longer lives. Chatting with friends on the porch or over the back fence, playing cards once a week, meeting friends every Tuesday morning at the coffee shop, or going to choir practice every week, can actually lengthen your life and bring you more happiness. And thank goodness we are beginning to move into a time of fewer social restrictions after this long Covid winter, because get this: Study after study shows that these kinds of activities will do far more to promote health and longevity than “slathering on the sunscreen, downing fistfuls of vitamins, …., or sweating it out at the gym or with hot yoga.”[2] 

Again, the key to resilience and healthy aging is “relationships, relationships, relationships.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association says that those aged sixty-five and older suffer from higher levels of depression that the younger populations. Paul Links, former Chief of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, says that his own extensive research in the field also bears this out.[3] He has seen the increase in depression among seniors firsthand in his practice. Links points to the lack of “connectiveness” these people feel to others, their sense of isolation, and loneliness as chief causes of deteriorating mental health among older adults.

Of course, if you are feeling this way, especially for more than a day or so,

 it is imperative to seek medical help. But finding ways to maintain old friendships and build new ones can help to give you the resilience that is so important as we age. Friendship may in fact be the best medicine you can take!

[1] Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2015.), p. 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Carstensen, A Long Bright Future, 98.

Women and Aging and Resilience

          A couple of weeks ago I was invited to address a special event in honour of International Women’s Day at the Seniors Centre in St. Marys, Ontario. My topic? Women and Aging and Resilience. I identified several women I have known who exhibited tremendous resilience as they aged.

These women all defied the notion that aging is a disease, a problem that must be fixed. As the great Catholic spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once said, “There is the temptation to make aging into the problem of the elderly and to deny our basic human solidarity in this most human process.” The feminist Betty Friedan once commented that the discrimination from which she suffered in her early days because she was a woman was nothing compared to the prejudices she faced as an older woman. She blamed this on the tendency of professionals, scholars, social service workers, clergy, and politicians to view elderly people as “problems to be solved.”

I don’t think it will be a surprise to you when I say that as women we continue to experience a double jeopardy – sexism and ageism. And of course, if you are a person of colour, or lesbian or bi-sexual or trans, or if you are differently abled, then those jeopardies are multiplied and compounded.

So what to do? Well, I think there are lessons we can learn from the stories of  resilient women we have known that can help us to break the bias and combat the challenges women face as we age. I believe that we can all learn to develop resilience by practising five simple steps that I will highlight in my blog over the coming weeks.

First, what is resilience? Think about people who are able to bounce back from hard times. You’ve known people like this. They may have suffered some tragedy or major setback in life and they’re down for a while; but then somehow they manage to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again. They bounce back. Feminist theologians Janet Ramsey and Rosemary Blieszner write that, resilience “implies an ability not only to cope with traumatic difficulties, but also to respond with flexibility under the pressures of everyday life. People who are resilient have the ability to move beyond being survivors to being thrivers.” They quote the author Ursula Estes who says that resilient women are like “tough little plants” who manage to send out brave little leaves anyway. Estes wrote of women who, their bad times behind them, put themselves into “occasions of the lush, the nutritive, and light” where they could “flourish, and thrive with busy, shaggy, heavy blossoms and leaves.”

Today I invite you to take some time to reflect upon the resilient women you have known. What was it that gave them the power to bounce back from challenging or difficult situations? What enabled them to “keep on keeping on” when others might easily have thrown in the towel? Make a list of the traits or characteristics that spring to mind when you think of these women and note their beliefs and practices too.

These resilient women are all around us. They are ordinary people we encounter everyday in life. They are women from whom we can each learn so much!


Do any of you remember the “Duck and Cover” exercises from the sixties? As I listen with alarm to the news coming out of Ukraine, the heartbreaking devastation the Ukrainian people have suffered, and Putin’s threats of nuclear war if NATO implements a “no fly” zone over Ukraine, my mind takes me back to images of elementary school children huddled in fear under their desks with their hands over their heads.

Ironically, the drills were intended to give people hope, to help them think that there was something they could do to defend themselves against a nuclear attack. In reality, however, they did not do anything except terrorize young children. They certainly would not have saved my friends and me, living as we did right across the river from Detroit.

They did, however, leave a lasting legacy. As historian Dee Garrison argues, “these civil defense drills in schools would later fuel antiwar and antinuclear activism, on the part of outraged parents and the students themselves.”

But what do we do in the face of a madman who will do whatever he can to get what he wants, which today is Ukraine and which tomorrow could be much of Europe?  In such frightening circumstances, we must pray and pray hard.

Today I invite you to visit our United Church website and meditate on the prayer provided by Rev. David Sparks.

In prayer lies our true hope.


This month marks the beginning of Women’s History Month. Plus tomorrow we celebrate International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is “Breaking the Bias”. So for all you Star Trek fans, here is a story to warm your heart as we remember a woman who broke through the biases of gender and colour.

You may recall that black actress Nichelle Nicholls played the role of Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series. She was much beloved but, after a while, she decided that it really wasn’t for her. Understandably, she resented the racial jibes she often received from some of the cast and crew. So she handed in her resignation. However, her boss Gene Roddenberry begged her to take the weekend to reconsider. “Don’t you see what I am trying to do here< Nichelle?” he asked her.

That weekend she chose to go to a major rally. She hoped to be able to meet the famous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but soon she was interrupted by someone who told her that she had a fan who really wanted to meet her. Nichelle did not want to shake hands with any more Star Trek fans. She wanted to meet the great man himself. Well, you can imagine her surprise and delight when the adoring tan turned out to be King himself! He said that he and his wife were her biggest fans. In fact, they would not allow their children to stay up to watch any other TV program but Star Trek.

It was then that Nichelle told him that she had turned in her resignation. King was shocked. He urged her to reconsider and even echoed her boss’s words: “Don’t you see what he is trying to do here?” He told her that what she was doing was vital to the cause of Black Emancipation. By creating a character with “dignity and knowledge”, she had given young black girls an important role model. He then added: “When we see you, we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.”

The following Monday Nichelle went back to Roddenberry and told him she was staying. If her presence on television could provide her people with a positive image of themselves and inspire them to reach for the top, then she had no other choice but to remain and fulfill her calling.

Because King believed that Uhura’s presence on the Enterprise’s bridge was crucial to the greater Civil Rights Movement, Nichelle knew that there was nothing else she could do. As a black woman her role was an early step in breaking the bias.

What Do You Really Know About Being Black in Canada?

How have you celebrated Black History Month this year? I would love to know!

Some of my friends and colleagues have made an intentional effort to support Black-owned businesses. Others have made donations to charities that support Anti-Racism Equity and Equality. Still others have purchased, read, and shared books by Black authors. Then there are the wonderful online resources that I personally have found helpful because they have introduced me to noteworthy Canadian Black Figures and their contributions. Some of these we shared in our worship service at Siloam on Sunday, February 13th.

Here is a wonderful video about the founder of Black History Month in Canada, the Honourable Jean Augustine, about whom I have written before. Her story is especially inspiring. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wGRWtSMq3s

Here is a powerful video about a young Canadian Black woman named Anne who talks about how the failure to lift up positive images of black girls in her elementary school led her to want to straighten her hair and bleach her skin – so that she could fit in with all the white kids in her class!

Here’s a link to one video in a series on Black History in Canada, that I encourage you to watch:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZvGmSuqiKw

Perhaps the best way to celebrate Black History Month is to commit to learning more about what it means to be black in Canada and how you can support efforts that lead to greater equality for all people of colour, not just during the month of February, but all year long!

Remembering Archie Bunker on Family Day, February 21st, 2022

Today is Family Day and my mind takes me back to how families were portrayed when I was growing up in southwestern Ontario. As a second-wave Boomer, I remember watching re-runs of Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, the Donna Reid Show, and Ozzie and Harriet. They were all a very idealized version of my own family – Dad heading out to work in the morning; Mom looking after the kids and caring for the home, with supper on the table when Dad got home; and having my grandmother back for Sunday lunch after church each week. Nothing terrible ever happened in these shows, the woundedness that many real life families experienced was never touched upon, and the episodes were full of feel-good, homespun wisdom.

But then in my second year of high school a new kind of family show aired, one that was not afraid of dealing with the realities and prejudices of most North American families: All in the Family. Most of us had never seen anything like it before. Apparently CBS was so worried about viewers’ responses to the patriarch of the family, the foulmouthed bigot Archie Bunker, that they actually hired extra phone operators to field any complaints that might come in to the station.

Few individuals or groups of people were spared Archie’s insolence. There’s even a scene from one of the early episodes where Archie and his wife Edith are returning home from church, and Edith tells Archie how horrified she is that he has just cursed the minister for his sermon. Daughter Gloria , whom Archie condescendingly calls “Little Girl”, and son-in-law Mike, try to lighten the mood with an anniversary lunch they have prepared for the couple. But, as Daniel S. Levy has written in Time Magazine,  “as the four sit down to celebrate, it takes no time for Archie to complain about the “Hebes,” “spics,” “spades,” “pinkos,” and atheists who have co-opted society, all the while tarring Edith as a “silly dingbat” and spewing his bile at Mike by calling him a “meathead.”

Little wonder, then, that a few weeks ago my middle son John, who had happened upon some old re-runs of the show, came to me to express his shock and outrage that such things were allowed to air on TV.  Yes, I said, it was terrible to hear those things on public television, but it was not the first time that satire had been used to highlight evils of society like racism, homophobia, antisemitism, religious bigoty, and misogyny. As Rob Reiner, who played Mike, noted, its purpose was to make North Americans see how racist and bigoted they were. The creator of the show, Norman Lear, who had himself suffered from discrimination in his childhood because he was Jewish, had a vision, and according to Reiner, that “vision was to get people thinking and talking about the issues of the day.” It worked. People talked about the show at work, over the back fence, and in the grocery store. Many of those who found the show so humourous, also recognised  themselves in the bigoted Archie and began to question their attitudes and prejudices. Teachers began to incorporate lessons in their curriculum that taught their students about bigotry in all its ugliness. In many ways, as Levy has written, this “foulmouthed bigot named Archie charmed and changed [North] America” for the better.

Today, as the extreme far right threatens to gain ground and our world grows more and more racist and intolerant, maybe it’s time for another Archie Bunker, someone who can shake us out of our ingrained intolerance and the dogmatism of small-mindedness and hatred.