Resilience

Thanksgiving Weekend continues with much family time.
Every now and then we might disconnect from our individual devices and be together to eat or even play a game.
Remember games that didn’t have a screen?

The Torah portion of Vayetze might remind many of us of a game we played during our childhood called, ‘Chutes and Ladders.’
The participants in the game would either ascend the ladder toward victory or descend via the chute going backward in a downward spiral.
In the Torah we read of a kind of chute and ladder:
He (Jacob) had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and the top reached to the sky, and the angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Eternal was standing beside him and God said, “I am the Eternal, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac, the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring.”(Genesis 28: 12 & 13)

Jacob’s dream represents a vision, a possible prophecy of the triumphs and the tragedy that would occur in Jewish history. The stairway or ramp, with its rungs reflects an ancient belief of the connection between heaven and earth.

The ancient Midrash explains the terminology of ascending and descending as corresponding to loyalty to God. If Jacob’s descendants embrace the Torah, they will ascend like messengers of God, but should they reject the law, they will descend. (Genesis Rabbah 68:12)
Another ancient midrash suggests the angels represent the various peoples that will rule over the Jewish people. The ultimate message is that we Jews will outlast them all.

The ladder and its rungs, similar to the game Chutes and Ladders, challenge each us to be resilient during times of adversity. During ancient and modern times the rungs of the ladder may symbolize the tragedy of the chutes, of Jewish persecution and tragedy.

The poet has written:
Egypt enslaved you.
Babylon crushed you.
Rome led you captive.
Suffering, torture.
Stake, Inquisition.
Pray, who taught you never to die!
Israel my people, God’s greatest riddle, will your solution ever be told?

The modern State of Israel represents a similar transformation of the Jewish people, from Jacob, the tent dweller, to the modern era the tough and strong Israeli soldier.

These days, too, we might find ourselves praying to God that this cycle of history, with its fears, vulgarity and crudity, might pass, replaced by a more eloquent and elegant era.
Our ability to keep climbing and hoping is the very definition of resilience.
Who is resilient? And how do we become resilient?
What made Jacob resilient? What made our people resilient? These are important questions. Maybe the most important questions.

The Wall Street Journal recently asked this question about resilience :Does early hardship in life keep children from becoming successful adults? Or does early hardship actually help?

It’s an urgent question for parents and educators, who worry that children growing up in difficult circumstances will fail to reach their full potential, or worse, sink into despair and dysfunction.

Social scientists have shown that the risks of being hampered by early stress are real, but they also have found a surprising pattern among those whose early lives included tough times: Many draw strength from hardship and see their struggle against it as one of the keys to their later success.

A wide range of studies over the past few decades has shed light on how such people overcome life’s adversities—and how we might all cultivate resilience as well.

In 1962, the psychologist Victor Goertzel and his wife, Mildred, published a book called “Cradles of Eminence: A Provocative Study of the Childhoods of Over 400 Famous Twentieth-Century Men and Women.”

They selected individuals who had had at least two biographies written about them and who had made a positive contribution to society. Their subjects ranged from Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo and Marie Curie to Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.
The authors found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes, with another 10% in a mixed setting.

Of the 400, a full 75%—some 300 individuals—had grown up in a family burdened by a severe problem: poverty, abuse, absent parents, alcoholism, serious illness or some other misfortune.

If this study were published today, we would find many more examples of women and men who rose to great heights after difficult childhoods—Oprah Winfrey, Howard Schultz, LeBron James and Sonia Sotomayor, to name just a few. Today, we often use the word “resilient” to describe such people.

But resilient people are everywhere, not just in the ranks of celebrities. They are ordinary women and men, in every walk of life, who meet the definition of resilience set forth by American Psychological Association: “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”

What makes someone resilient in spite or because of the stress?

A minister once shared a parable that neatly captures this question: Two brothers are raised in a home in which the father is a violent alcoholic. One brother grows up to be a drinker and an abuser, while the other becomes an abstinent man and a model parent. When asked how they came to be who they were, both brothers gave the same answer: “Given who my father was, how could I not?”

Back in 1962, the finding that so many prominent people had grown up with hard times may have seemed counterintuitive but, given what we now know about stress and coping, it isn’t so surprising. Coping with stress is a lot like exercise: We become stronger with practice.

Poet Dylan Thomas said, “There’s only one thing that’s worse than having an unhappy childhood, and that’s having a too-happy childhood.” I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that too many women and men feel lesser somehow because of the adversities they have grown up with, imagining they would be happier or more successful people if they had enjoyed stress-free upbringings. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

In the end, we all should work for and hope for resilience. We should all understand that our reaction to life is what makes us strong, not our circumstances.

A great military leader (with a supposedly hot temper) was given a beautiful bowl for an important tea ceremony. Someone dropped the bowl, which broke into five pieces. One of the guests spoke up with an improvised poem cleverly linking the name of the giver of the bowl, the style of the bowl and the five broken pieces, making them all laugh and avoiding the wrath of the hot-headed leader. This specific bowl has since become quite famous, and is considered very important.

The bowl has become more beautiful for having been broken. … In other words, the proof of its fragility and its resilience is what makes it beautiful.

The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, writes Peter D. Kramer in his book Against Depression. The opposite of depression is resilience. It’s not the absence of guilt and sadness, but is the ability to find a path away from those feelings.

As we go up and down the ladder of life I wish us many blessings, but most especially the blessing of resilience.