The Simple (But Not Easy) Choice That Will Define All of Us

resilience

I’m standing in my daughter’s room, and she’s showing me her new pen.

The body of it is thick and filled with glittering liquid, and it’s still wrapped in the original cellophane. I’m oohing-and-ahhing when her older brother walks in. Probably feeling left out of the attention and the interest, he decides to rain on the parade.

“That’s stupid. You can’t use it if it’s still in the plastic.”

My daughter explains, “I’m protecting it because I don’t want it to get ruined.”

He decides to play on the fear she’s just revealed, and he taunts her with a devious smile, “Yeah, that’s true, you better not drop it or it will be broken forever.”

Then, my daughter pauses. Something new comes into her eyes. It’s fire. She stands up straighter. She looks directly at him. She holds out the pen at shoulder height.

And she lets it go…

We all have things we believe we won’t be able to handle.

Sometimes, those things are truly a matter of life and death. Will we be able to manage the moment the doctor gives us the bad news? Would we be able to survive the loss of a child?

Other times, such things are a matter of emotional life and death, but they feel no less dire. What if I make the wrong choice and it costs my family dearly? What if I say the wrong thing? Do the wrong thing? Choose the wrong college? Choose the wrong partner? Choose the wrong path? What if I embarrass myself on stage? What if I trip trying to walk up there? What if I embarrass myself in life? What if I trip trying to walk through it?

What if I drop my glittering pen?

What then?

I have a friend whose daughter recently collected all the house pillows, piled them at the bottom of the stairs, counted off twelve steps, and then leapt for the pile of cushions. It didn’t end well. Yet, as they were leaving the hospital—her little leg now encased in a little cast—she looked up at her mother and said this:

“You know, Mom, I made a mistake. But I made it.”

Something got broken. But I survived it.

The real question is not, what will happen to me that I cannot handle? The real question is, what has happened to me that I’ve already handled? What have I already survived? What mistakes have I already made, and how did I make it?

… My daughter lets her beloved pen go. It crashes to the hard wood floor with a loud clatter. She bends over, picks it up, holds it out in my son’s direction for him to examine and, with her chin out, says, “Nope, see, not broken forever.”

I suppose it’s possible she’s talking about the pen.

But I think the truth is, she’s talking about herself. “Nope, see, the thing I didn’t think I could handle—dropping my beloved pen—I survived it. It’s not broken forever, but even more importantly, I’m not broken forever.” I look at my son and he’s grinning. Her courage and resilience have won him over.

The three of us leave the room smiling.

Of course, if the pen had broken when my daughter dropped it, she’d have been faced with the life-changing decision all of us eventually face:

Do I identify with the mistake I made, or the fact that I made it?

Life, as long as we’re alive, is always presenting us with this choice: do we define ourselves by the moments in which we’ve dropped the ball (or the pen), or do we define ourselves by the fact that we’ve survived them?

Psychologists often debate whether resilience is something we’re born with or something we learn along the way. Two little girls gave me the answer. The answer is neither. Resilience isn’t in our DNA. And it’s not learned in our experiences.

Resilience is chosen.

Resilience is choosing to identify with the fact that we’re still standing.

Resilience is choosing to believe we’re not the bad things that have happened.

Resilience is choosing to believe we are the good thing that has survived them.

Someone once said, when we go through something we didn’t think we could handle, something in us actually does die; the thing that dies is the part of us that didn’t think we could survive it.

If you’re reading this—in other words, if you’re alive—you’ve already made it. You’ve already survived much. You’ve possessed the strength to still be here.

The question is, will you choose to let that define you?

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Nancy Currie Wells

    Needed to hear this today. I’m going to read it to my family over dinner tonight. Thank you.

    • I’m glad it came at the right time, Nancy, and I hope dinner went well. 🙂

  • Shannon Sprague

    B.R.A.V.O.!!!! I LOVE this post and thank you, once again, for sharing. It’s great for peeps of all ages!

  • Deidre Laatz-Jones

    Thank you so Much for this blog! I am going through some difficulty where I doubted myself and you made me realize that I have already made it through it!
    Resilience is chosen.
    God bless you for your insight. 🙂

    • You’re welcome, Deidre. I’m so glad this post could affirm that you have already made it and you can put it behind you.

  • Peter Mason

    Another great post! Thank you!!

  • Ginny

    Thank you. We’ve made it through…choosing to let that define us…resilience. Never thought of it like this.

    • Glad it came as a new perspective, Ginny, I hope it continues to help.

  • Mike Gates

    I’m undecided if resilience is inherent, learned, or chosen. I suspect some of each, and that different people are resilient in different areas/circumstances.
    Adversity faced and overcome seems to be good for the human animal. I got a really powerful reminder of that 4 years ago. A large forest fire forced the evacuation of several homes here. The destruction was really spectacular and we got world-wide news attention over a week.
    I don’t know how it translated through the lens of the news coverage to the outside world, but here’s what really went down: we came together as a community.
    “How are you holding up?””Here, let me help you.””You guys can stay with us while you’re evacuated” Food banks overflowed. It was glorious. I was grateful to live here and get to see us all rally like we did. When faced with genuine adversity we collectively rose to the occasion and were better because of it. We wouldn’t have tapped into that without the fire.
    I really liked the story of little girl who broke her leg. You wrote “it didn’t end well” – perhaps. Seems like her spirit remained intact (Which brought a smile to my face). Ending well or not depends on how the experience shapes her. Hopefully it strengthens.

    • Mike, I think I need to put you in charge of the P.S. on all my posts. I love the additional nuance you add. And it is complicated. Even if resilience is a choice, I suppose their could be biological and environmental factors predisposing one to choose it, right? Definitely complicated. Thank you for sharing the story about your community, which sounds like Community with a capital C!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Fantastic! What a beautiful, vivacious, and motivating reminder that mistakes are often an outcome of putting ourselves out into the world, with all the risk and wonder that involves. We still live on Sesame Street style reminders that Everyone Makes Mistakes (So Why Can’t You) from the 80s in our family because the thing I want for all of us is the resilience to keep doing all the wonderful, weird, and sometimes wild things that can turn out amazing. And to do that we cannot believe we are our mistakes; we have to know we are surviving and thriving through the things we’ve attempted. Thank you, Kelly!

    • Wonderful, weird and wild. Alliteration. Surviving and thriving. Rhyming. Seriously, Shel, with your take on the world and the words you use to express it, I’d put money down to read some of your writing. Have you seen Zootopia. Your comment and the Sesame Street reference made me realize that the theme of this post echoes that movie. The kids all loved it!

  • Resilience – such an important subject to write about. Well done & thanks for the reminder.
    Some people seem to have always been resilient to the negative events that occur to them. Others feel crushed by happenings that their contemporaries just blow off. I’ve found – aided by some CBT-based writings – that my thoughts about a situation or occurrence (and how it relates to me) have everything to do with how I feel about myself. It becomes a circle/cycle – either vicious or health/life-promoting. I seek to always choose the latter but find the reminder here in this article very welcome.

    • Thank you for this reflection, Kitty, and I’m glad this post could affirm where you’re at on the path your traveling!

  • foundmercy

    I just had a baby and this made me cry. In a good way. Thanks for posting this.

  • Lump. In. Throat. Such a sweet, sweet reminder, Dr. Kelly. I often wonder about that moment where I define it or it defines me..I’ve had a few…some I’m prouder of than others. It also reminds me of how important grace is for others, in addition to myself. I’ll carry this one around, thank you!

    • Donna, I had a paragraph in there about grace, but deleted it because it seemed to muddy the waters. Glad you found the grace in it anyway. 🙂

  • AV

    Beautiful. So thought provoking. Thank you.

  • Another SUPERB blog post! Thank you, Kelly!!! I needed to hear this today!

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  • Chris Weiss

    Thank you for presenting retaining resilience from a traumatic experience as a choice. I am struggling with recovering from the near death of a child. It’s been six months, she survived, but I still feel waves of overwhelming sadness suddenly come into my present without warning. The extreme pain of that experience is so real. It shook my world to its roots! I am practicing the choice of living in the present moment, letting the sadness pass over me & accepting the fact that I could feel pain like that again. It’s very difficult. What I didn’t know was this choice has to be made over and over and over again, until the sadness works itself out. It’s taking a strong commitment to trust again in order to negotiate this part of my recovery. I suppose that commitment is the basis of resilience.