In my new book, I know What Heaven Looks Like, the word “resilience” isn’t mentioned once; however, it’s a story about my life, and my life has surely been one of resilience. As someone who has overcome traumatic life circumstances including childhood abuse, poverty and homelessness, I’d like to share with you 5 ways to continually cultivate a spirit of resilience to cope with challenging life experiences.
Be your own advocate.
I was 7 years old the first time I became responsible for myself. At that point, I had one little sister who was 4 and half years younger than me and by the time I as 8, I had another baby sister. I became responsible for us all. On the bed or floor pallet or in the car where my mom left us sleeping, we’d often awaken to her absence scared or hungry. We’d lie there long enough to cry in and out of sleep until my hunger or my sisters’ restlessness or playfulness became too much of a distraction.
My mother would be gone for a few hours at a time, and sometimes, a few days at a time. She worked many jobs and did many things to make money and stay alive. Depending upon where we were staying at the time, food wasn’t always available. When there was food, we ate what we had—whatever it was. And when there wasn’t food, I dumpster-dived or stole food and milk from stores.
Having to care for myself and my sisters taught me that life isn’t always a fairytale. It would be 2 whole years before a knight in shining armor—my paternal grandmother—would come to save the day, and during that time, I was forced to endure many risky, dangerous and sometimes painful circumstances. When those challenges came, I took time to be hurt, grieve, cry, and feel sorry for myself; then I’d become sick and tired of being sick and tired. I put together a plan for how I was going to get the food, milk or diapers we needed for the day or a plan for what I had to do to keep us safe.
You are your own advocate. When life gets tough, you too can take time to be hurt. Feel the pain. Grieve your unmet expectations. Feel sorry for yourself. And then, when you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, determine your goals, and make a plan that charts specifically what’s needed to achieve those goals. When you have a plan and work that plan, that plan will eventually work for you.
My age and my unique circumstances meant that I often times made mistakes and had to tweak my plans accordingly. One time, I went into a neighborhood store and shoplifted some items. Before I could make it out of the store, one of the store employees caught me shoving chips and candy into my coat pocket. I was 8 and the young man who caught me scared the daylights out of me. He made me empty my pockets and told me that I was not allowed back in the store.
In that moment of fear, I knew that I would need a way to make money so that I didn’t have to steal. When we could visit my grandmother, I’d do odd jobs for her and her friends, and they paid me what they could. A dollar here, $5 there. Making money as a kid in my environment was difficult and keeping the money or what I purchased with the money proved to be an even harder feat.
We moved around a lot, which meant we could only keep what we could carry, and sometimes, the adults around me would take my cash or sell my possessions. I’d get frustrated, and oftentimes angry at the failure of the adults in my life to properly care for me. Their working many jobs, vices, addictions and abuses meant that no moment was predictable and that nothing was truly ever mine.
Wouldn’t it be great to have everything go our way all the time? Having plans to get through each day was a great way to remain motivated through life’s ups and downs; and the uncertainties of my life circumstances made me spiritually nimble and receptive to new ideas and new information. It became futile to be attached to my expectations, and overtime I learned that letting go of what an outcome must be, makes room for an outcome to be what it is.
Understand that we are not the things that happen to or around us.
I was 9-years old when I began living with my paternal grandmother permanently. For the first year of living with her, I had nightmares, I was sent home from school for having crying fits and bursts of anger, and I was suicidal. Recovering from the pain and trauma I experienced while living with mother was a process that included lots of prayer, tenderness and professional help.
As a child, it was easy to blame myself for these things. With my grandmother’s spiritual guidance, I learned to pray, and I learned about Christian principles such as forgiveness, healing and wholeness. The psychological therapy I received helped me to understand that nothing I did caused the unfortunate circumstances in my life.
Pain is a natural part of life. We all experience things that hurt us, and we all have done or said things that have hurt others. When the hurt is deep enough, forgiveness is a daily process that allows our wounds to heal, leaving us with scars that can serve as reminders of life lessons. While pain is inevitable, healing from and processing pain gives us the ability to live a more whole, peaceful life.
Always look in and look up.
Not having formed a significant, nurturing attachment with either of my parents, along with the abuse I endured, created within me the need to prove my value and worth by doing. I became an eager-to-please over achiever who believed that the more I could do for people the more they would love me. In my world, love was conditional, and self-love was selfish.
Overtime, the need to have the best grades and do the best in terms of sports, extracurricular activities, and student leadership positions made me one giant ball of nerves because if I failed, my fear was that the love I received would end. Trying to live up to the pressure became unbearable, and by the time I reached my freshman year of college, I had a psychotic breakdown, became suicidal and ended up in the hospital.
In a super competitive world, many of us get caught in the race of doing. Hard work certainly has its benefits, and for those with the tenacity to pursue even the wildest dreams, don’t focus so much on doing that you forget being. Looking inward through self-reflection helps us stay on track to meet our goals, and looking up—literally standing outside and looking up at the sky, at the trees, at the buildings, at the world, at life happening—puts it all in perspective.
Know that what you see depends on where you stand.
Perspective is everything. Sometimes, when we are closest to a situation, it’s difficult to see beyond it. While I was recovering from my psychotic break, journaling daily, talk therapy, and list-making helped me
condition my mind to see that there is more to life than the negative, and that I am not only capable, but I am also lovable. When we take time to step back from a situation, and ourselves, and we examine our lives and world, we can see countless examples of beauty, hope, and opportunity in us and around us.
During uncertainty and challenging situations, it can be tempting to lose hope and to give up, but we can be empowered to keep moving forward, achieving goals and fulfilling dreams despite the obstacles we may encounter. Life feels good when we feel successful, however, may we also remember that cultivating a spirit of resilience involves doing and being.
We are more than what happens to us and we are more than what we accomplish.
We are capable and lovable.