First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

Resilience

January 3, 2013
Rev. Sandra Fees

In the 1970s Hasbro introduced those balancing toys we all love called Weebles. Inside each roly-poly egg-shape is a weight at the bottom center. When the Weeble is tipped over, that weight lifts and the force of gravity causes the toy to return to its upright position. It wobbles a little bit before it comes to a standstill. That’s what led to the popular catch phrase used to advertise it: (Congregation responds) “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.”

Something similar occurs with people. Like Weebles, resilient people wobble but they don’t fall down. Like the Weeble, you could say a resilient person has a low center of gravity. They have a large base of support and high stability.

This is certainly true of our ability to be physically resilient. Our physical center of gravity is the point in the body where our weight is evenly distributed. For most people that’s our lower abdomen. We can improve our physical resiliency by training the muscles along the whole torso.

But resilience isn’t just a matter of physics. It’s also a matter of psychology and spirituality. Studies of community responses to natural disasters have revealed some interesting findings in this regard. Communities need stronger bridges, better barriers to flooding, improvements to the communications grid, and other physical improvements. But they also need stronger neighborhood ties where sidewalk chats and corner coffee shops flourish. Strengthening the social infrastructure turns out to be every bit as important as improving the physical one.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg uses the Chicago heat wave of July 1995 to illustrate. The Chicago heat wave killed 739 people. Mortality rates were highest in poor neighborhoods with African-American communities being hardest hit. Yet he found two adjacent neighborhoods with vastly different results.  Englewood’s fatality rate was 33 in 100,000 residents while Auburn Gresham’s was only 3 in 100,000.

What made a difference were the sidewalks, stores, restaurants, and community organizations. They served to bring people together in the neighborhood. The people of Englewood were more vulnerable because their community had been abandoned. Living in a neighborhood like Auburn Gresham during a heat wave, according to Klinenberg, “is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in each room.” (www.npr.org/2013/01/03/168509385/neighborhood-connections-key-to-surving-a-crisis, “Neighborhood Connections Key to Surviving  a Crisis,” Jan. 03, 2013) Neighborhood connections save lives.

Studies of resiliency in individuals are also revealing.  Recent research has focused on children born into high-risk situations, including poverty, abuse, and crime. The findings showed that 50 percent and often as high as 70 percent of these youth developed an ability to cope with stress and to lead successful lives. The studies sought to identify the characteristics that contributed to this resiliency, an ability researchers call stress-hardiness. (The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework, Bonnie Benard, M.S.W., www.resiliency.com/free-articles-resources/the-foundations-of-the-resili...)

I’m providing you with a lot of background information this morning. It’s important in helping us to understand the findings, to understand what’s possible. One finding is that humans in general are designed with the ability to be psychologically resilient. From a psycho-spiritual perspective, we are built like Weebles. It is innate. This makes sense because life entails so many stresses and changes, from loss and aging, to job changes, to births and even happy occasions.

Even positive events place stress on us. Just think about when you or one of your children got married. Or think about when that newborn came home from the hospital. Or think about when you started college or an exciting new job. If this ability to manage stress were not part of our makeup, none of us would be able to get through the day.

The good news is that resilience is the norm. It isn’t something extraordinary or exceptional that some people have and others don’t or can’t have. The even better news is that we can improve our skills. Those who are already fairly resilient can learn to be more resilient. After all it’s not the kind of thing we are likely to have mastered to the point where we wouldn’t like to be better at it. Those who are finding themselves to be less resilient and who are struggling to find their center of gravity can be especially heartened.

So here’s the million dollar question: How do we become more resilient? How do we lower our center of gravity?

It turns out that cultivating resiliency has a lot to do with belief and habits of mind, which we can also call spiritual practices. In a recent interview on NPR, Andrew Zolli, co-author of the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, says some of the things we can do to bolster resilience are “intriguingly about your belief system and … about your habits of mind.”

One of the most effective ways to cultivate resiliency is through spiritual practice – what Zolli calls habits of mind. Brain studies of actively meditating Buddhist monks reveal the benefits of mindfulness meditation and mindfulness practices. Similar results have been found when studying the brain activity of nuns praying. These practices help people learn to better regulate their emotions. ("Resilience" Looks At How Things Bounce Back, July 27, 2012, Talk of the Nation, This is Science Friday, www.npr.org/2012/07/27/157489677/-resilience-looks-at-how-things-bounce-back)

In recent years, we have seen an increased cultural interest in mindfulness practices in the medical field, among spiritual people generally, and in our UU communities. I find that devotional yoga, meditation, and prayer offer me ways to develop positive habits of mind. They teach me to be still and to connect with my own interior life. I retain my practice during low-stress and high-stress times. I need to cultivate inner strength and stress management during the calmest times so that when a tragedy or even minor day to day irritations arise, I am better able to adapt.

When I think about becoming more resilient, I think about having the ability to move with life’s changes. I think of that well-known saying about trees bending with the wind. It’s a very familiar proverb from the Mandarin Chinese. It teaches that: “The tree that does not bend with the wind will be broken by the wind.” I meditate so I can bend with life, rather than be shattered by it.

Our beliefs matter too. One belief that bolsters resiliency is that the world is meaningful. It includes being committed to finding a meaningful purpose. Believing that life is meaningful and purposeful does not require or reject belief in God or a higher power. It does not require a set way of understanding God or the divine.

This fits well with our diverse Unitarian Universalist theological framework. For humanists, this meaning-making may be understood to be completely at the hands of humans. For theists, the sense of meaning and purpose may be understood to derive from God, who instills the universe with meaning and from whom we receive our call to purpose. This might include the understanding that God created the world and cares about what happens to us. Many individuals find great comfort and support in this image of the divine.

When we are able to find meaning in life, we are less likely to feel distress about disturbing events. We are more likely to be optimistic and confident. Belief in a meaningful existence is expressed in the UU principle that calls us to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It’s also expressed in our encouragement to spiritual growth.

Another focus of resilient individuals is on making the world a better place. Those who have successfully weathered change and received the help and support of others recognize how essential our relationships and communities are to our own ability to survive. Unitarian Universalism holds a strong ethic of justice-seeking and service – of building a better world. Our principles express this commitment in our affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person and our call for justice, equity and compassion in human relationships. We are called to respect each person’s human rights and to work to protect those rights.

Helping others is good for the world and also improves our own well-being. So those who want to improve their ability to bounce back, might do well to lend a helping hand. Volunteer for family promise, to serve on the caring committee or board of directors. Make a financial contribution to a church program.

It probably won’t surprise many of you to learn that believing we can influence our surroundings and outcomes is another key to human resiliency. This is a belief in human agency and that we have some control over our own choices and outcomes. In other words, we are participants in life, not pawns. We don’t have control over everything, but we do have a voice and a hand in creating the world we want for ourselves and others.

This is a pretty fiercely held value among Unitarian Universalists. When asked to identify themselves along a scale of freedom to determinism – and I’ve done this with a few different groups over the years - most UUs will be found tightly huddled at the freedom end, maybe even competing to be at the most extreme end of it. This doesn’t necessarily exclude God from the picture, but it does suggest that humans are at the very least co-creators in events.

Related to this is the belief that we learn and grow from both positive and negative experiences. Albert Einstein said it this way, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Those who are resilient find the opportunities. Because none of our lives are entirely without pain or stress, our success and happiness depends not on avoiding problems so much as learning to move with them.

Personal experience is one of the primary sources of our UU faith. We use our own stories of success and failure to help us better understand ourselves and the world. It is through our personal experiences that we are opened to the source of life. Our painful experiences as well as our joyful ones hold the potential to open us to life.

Taoism teaches that: “change is the essence of life and going with the flow is the best way to manage things.” (from Soul to Soul). In the words of Lao Tzu from this morning’s reading: “the rigid and inflexible will surely fail while the soft and flowing will prevail.”

In our reading from Mark Nepo, we learn what this means when confronting physical pain. Nepo describes the searing pain after having a rib removed. At first, he tried to deal with it by resisting and tensing against the pain. Then slowly he gave way and rather than remaining rigid and tense, which increased his suffering, he imagined himself becoming more flexible, more like water, less like ice. As he relaxed with the pain, he was able to lessen it. He opened to the experience. He says, “By opening fully to our own experience, we can feel and see the resilience of life around us.”

Our religion offers us resources and tools that can bolster our resiliency. This includes our principles and sources of faith as well as our embrace of spiritual practices of prayer and meditation that foster mindfulness. Embracing and cultivating these values and habits of mind can help us become more like Weebles. We can lower our center of gravity and build our core. We’re all going to wobble from time to time. But we can learn how to get back up, how to be more open to life, more like water and less like ice.

May it be so. Amen.