I've been interested in resilience since I became a quadriplegic 30 years ago. When I went through rehab, many of us were depressed, but some went home and vegetated while others did whatever it took to reclaim their lives. I've long wondered about the difference between those who survive adversity, and even thrive, and those who don't.
I know one thing. It's not about strength or weakness. Frankly, I hate that measure as it implies that those who do well have a better character than those who don't. Not true.
Here's what is true. Resilience is partly about luck. In my case, I had a career to return to, a family and the kind of health insurance that afforded me the luxury of not worrying about paying for my equipment. Professor Ann Masten at the University of Minnesota found that children's success in several developmental tasks was related to resources they had in childhood — intelligence, parenting quality and socioeconomic status.
Now we know that overinvolved parenting contributes to making children less resilient. But that is only a small part of the story of resilience.
There is a far more important factor. Almost all studies of resilience have addressed the value of good relationships with caring adults either in the family or outside of it. This could happen through teachers, mentoring programs, religious groups or distant relatives but it is these relationships that are critical in fostering resilience.
Eighteen-year-old Dana Young was just 13 when her family was evicted from their apartment because her mother had been using drugs and couldn't pay the rent. Placed in a shelter in their old neighborhood, Dana felt humiliated after being teased relentlessly by her old friends.
She and her older brother Devlin helped one other endure these difficult times. Eventually her family became involved with Episcopal charities where Dana found her voice through poetry and music.
With the help of people who believed in her and her faith, she now plans to attend Shippensburg University next year and hopes to become a writer.
Having support in your life fosters resilience regardless of how old you are.
Linda Noble Topf was in her 30s and at the height of her career in 1981 when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She thought her life as a community leader and artist was over.
Although she had support at first, she ignored it and got lost in dark ideas about her future, turning to drugs and alcohol. Like most who have endured great suffering, she felt alone, unloved, unlovable and a burden to her family.
One night her husband Michael, exasperated, issued an ultimatum: "Choose your life or I am leaving." And, like so many others when given the choice, she chose life. And when she did, she found herself surrounded by people who cared about her.
Today, despite the progression of her illness, she runs workshops, coaches, consults with the MS Society and publishes many articles about living with adversity.
Andrea Collins Smith has been the subject of both this column and my radio show. In her 30s when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she never lost her joy for life. She attributed her happiness to the love of her children and friends and her faith that she would be ok whether or not she survived this illness.
I spoke to her in April 2008 when friends took her and her children to the beach in Ocean City. She said that was the best day of her life.
Two months later, she died. Her ability to love until her last days was aided by people who cared for her and allowed her to care for them.
For many reasons, more of us are living with fewer intimate friends. And, with the help of technology, the younger generation believes relationships can be done through text messaging.
We might function well that way, but in the face of adversity, we need the loving care of our fellow humans. Years ago in these pages, I wrote about a visit to the majestic Redwoods in California with a friend who was a nature buff. She told me that such large trees had very shallow root systems. I wondered how these massive structures found their stability without deep roots.
"Redwoods grow in clusters," she explained "and their roots interlock. That's how they get their strength."