On Resilience: Emerging from the pandemic stronger than we were before

We are all shaped by our experiences. They leave indelible marks, whether we’re encountering adversity or joy, through physical experience or emotional. When I think as a martial artist about this effect, I see my physical responses to my environment as analogous to my psychological reactions to outside stimuli. I still have a crease in my right leg where the horse trailer landed on me back in the summer of 1969. But after having both hips replaced in my early 50s, I’ve found strength and resilience I never imagined finding at this late stage in my athletic career.

 I have also seen enduring marks on my body due to psychological stress. I once worked with a *difficult* woman who bullied everyone in the office. While I was able to set my own boundaries and sequester myself from her influence, I felt helpless and uncomfortable witnessing her outbursts against my co-workers. Over time I found myself increasingly stressed, and saw changes in my metabolism, energy levels, and general demeanor. I found myself accepting certain realities of that environment as immutable, which subsequently steered me away from some of my life goals. I was working in a toxic environment, and it affected all other areas of my life. While this experience also left indelible marks, it was different from the physical accident in one major way – namely, that it had an end, I was able to walk away.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…or so we’re told. When we are challenged by our environment, our first impulse is to seek refuge and relief. Pain takes many forms, and for most of us it is something to be avoided. While there are many examples of avoidable pain, most of those are self-generated (think: hangovers, digestion feedback, guilt). It is the unavoidable pain that can knock us off our balance, slam us to the ground, or take our breath away. When this happens in sparring class, we look for ways to pick ourselves back up, take a deep breath, and endeavor to balance our emotional response so that we can get something positive out of the experience. Allowing your emotions to take the lead in a situation like this can lead to misguided life skills that teach you to spin your wheels in an attempt to avoid the unavoidable. Another word for this is suffering. Resistance is suffering. Trying to avoid the unavoidable is suffering.

The very nature of the term “unavoidable” is absolute – there simply are uncomfortable painful interactions in life that cannot be sidestepped. The COVID-19 pandemic being an excellent example. Certainly there were many theories about how to manage and mitigate the risk, to get it under control more quickly; but the truth is, it was happening. One person alone could not avoid the pandemic based solely on their own behaviors or choices. Embracing difficult situations is a valuable life skill, and there are many hurdles along the way to full empowerment. It is a matter of discipline coupled with intention setting that fully activates this empowerment tool – a tool that, as a martial artist, you’ve already developed, used, and honed both on the mat, and off. 

Martial arts is about using energy provided to increase your strength, recycle or feed back to your partner that which they so freely give. On its face, when someone is moving to strike you and you block, you are deflecting aggressive energy. This is not the kind of energy that cries to be sought out; rather it is the kind of energy we actively avoid. In the interest of personal safety, it is imperative that a practitioner is never forced to use their physical skills to escape an altercation. We look for ways to avoid it, we do all we can to sidestep and engage only as much as is needed. But if that energy is unavoidable, the martial artist is prepared to receive and embrace it, turn it to their advantage and successfully navigate the circumstance all while deepening their training. This strategy on the sparring floor is no different than meeting a difficult situation in life; the concept of ‘embrace and redirect’ is literally what is required in the moment to emerge intact and in relative safety.

Then there is the temporary nature of most pain. The dent in my leg led to a hip replacement, and a great deal of pain. But what else was gleaned from the experience? An opportunity for self-examination, reflection, and personal growth. I learned about the way that I face pain. I learned about my own resilience, and the capacity of my body to renew and heal. I learned more about balance from a new perspective after working with the concept consciously for nearly forty years. I learned about posture, alignment, and about the false assumption that symmetry equals balance. I learned about how I think, about my victim mentality and how my impressions of power and control had been laid bare. I’ve been spurred on to learn more about my relationship with my core muscles, how to find leverage where previously there was none. And I’ve learned how to find, understand, and further sharpen my muscular system’s relationship to itself. All of this information resulted from a lifelong, unavoidable painful experience. I cannot undo that event from 1969, leaving me with a stark choice – embrace or resist. Whether consciously experienced or unconsciously, the way the memory is stored in my mind and used to further develop myself could lead me down different paths. Either I feed the victim mentality, or develop my empowerment tool. 

Every experience with strife holds the potential to build resilience. Resilience is simply the ability to bounce back, some would say better than before, as resilience tested is resilience deepened, yielding a conscious sort of strength.  But this leads to the actual hard part; in the face of great adversity, and what would seem like abject failure, how to muster the strength to turn this corner and create boundless energy, life, and joy out of tragedy? The answer is that pain is temporary. 

In my search for understanding how this functions, I came across a Harvard study from the 1950’s. Researchers placed rats in a pool of water to ascertain how long they could tread water. Some could stay afloat for extended periods, but for most the average time was about 15 minutes. The interesting part was what happened when they plucked the unlucky rats out of the water right before they gave up. After a brief rest period, they were put back in the water. During the next try, the rats could tread water for up to 60 hours before giving up. (I couldn’t find any information regarding the handling of the rats; I only hope they were allowed to retire and given loads of cheese for the rest of their little lives…) Through the power of belief that they would eventually be rescued, they willingly pushed their bodies far past their previous attempts.

One could say that it was hope for the rescue that encouraged the rats to keep swimming; I would say that the realization of the temporary nature of pain and stress showed them that there was an end in sight, if they could just hold on a little bit longer. When we realize that everything is impermanent, we can stop wallowing and instead divert our resources toward healing and building up our lives. Much like the situation I had with the insufferable coworker, when there is an end in sight, we can confidently hold true that we have what it takes to make it through. The pandemic holds within it the power to strengthen or devastate anyone, but even if it goes one way, it can always be re-experienced later, and all of those resources can be put to work for you. You may not feel as though you emerged unscathed from the COVID-19 pandemic, that it has left an indelible mark on you. But the power of your training gives you the leverage and the strength to withstand the storm, and build everlasting resilience.

As we return to training, ponder what it is that you will carry in your psyche about the last year. Will it be destitution or resilience? I think we both know the answer.