When I was in high school, I was hit by a semi-truck on the California I-99 freeway during my first day of behind-the-wheel driver’s training. My instructor, an older black gentleman named Ernie, likely saved my life as he held the steering wheel steady to prevent us from spinning wildly into traffic. Our vehicle came to a stop as the rear of the car crashed into the concrete median. Thankfully, neither of us were seriously injured. But needless to say I wasn’t in a hurry to get back behind the wheel.
On my next driver’s training session, perhaps feeling guilty, Ernie asked me if I still felt comfortable with him being my instructor. I said of course. He then proceeded to give me a much needed pep talk. He said that life would throw you off the horse, but you just had to get back in the saddle. As overused as the line seems now, it didn’t seem cliché in the moment. He was older than I. Had seen much more in life than I. And participated in the same turbulent accident that I had. But he remained unsilenced in when it came to having a say in the life he was going to live.
Years later, I was involved in a tragic river accident in the Alaskan Bush that left one person dead. A few days after the incident, I was on a train to Seward where I met an older man named TR. TR was a retired pilot, and had recently been involved in a mid-air collision with another small private aircraft in Virginia. He survived. The other pilot didn’t. After sharing my recent experience with him, he responded in much the same spirit that Ernie had: “Get back up and meet the challenge.”
And he didn’t just preach it… He lived it. TR had piloted his aircraft from Virginia to Alaska where he and his wife planned to explore the state by plane. He was unbending in his will to
I briefly mention these stories because these and other experiences inform my personal understanding of resilience. Today, most people can go their whole lives without facing significant danger. But in the shadow of danger, significant clarity and strength is within grasp.
As I reflect on the last year, it goes without saying that 2020 created tremendous obstacles. Workers lost their jobs. Families lost their loved ones. In order to fight the virus, significant changes were made to the way we work and learn. And for many, it was the first time they were forced to wrestle with the idea of their own mortality.
However, hiding behind the madness, there was also opportunity. Opportunities to care for loved ones. Opportunities to develop closer relationships. Opportunities to make much needed changes that were only available because of COVID.
While many were binging television and lamenting the nightmare of 2020, others were getting back in the conductor’s seat and taking control of the runaway train. These are the people who I’ve been impressed with. These are people worth emulating. This past year, I watched friends start social welfare organizations. I watched people move away from expensive cities and improve their lifestyle. I’ve watched people completely change their diet and exercise habits for the better.
This bias for resilience is the same spirit that puts a person back in an airplane after the trauma of a mid-air collision. It is the same driving force that puts a double amputee in the gym and inspires him to outperform his competition. It is uncommon, yet undeniably necessary.
Our culture and technological advancement has worked against the development of resilience. Despite reasonable expectations to reverse, Netflix, Hulu, and Disney have not skipped a beat in churning out endless distraction. Everyday I’m confronted with a new show that would undoubtedly catch my attention for hours at a time. The endless scroll of Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter have kept us anxious about the world while leaving us too weak, too untested to make a difference. During the pandemic, many of us justified our inaction with the reality of the world coming to a grinding halt. But some of us saw things differently. Some of us saw opportunity in the obstacle.
Resilience doesn’t wait for the hard times to pass. Given more time, I might even argue that it doesn’t presume that hard times will pass. As of today, it doesn’t appear that 2020 way of life isn’t retreating in the near term. Thus, we have two options going forward: allow the world to force its will unimpeded, or, like Ernie and TR, find ways to counter the forces pressing down on us.