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?
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?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.