01/19/2011 08:54 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Beyond Sorrow: The Resilience of the Human Spirit

A few years ago I went to the Walter Reed Army hospital to do an afternoon of teaching meditation for the nursing staff. Just before the class, my friend, a nurse there, took me on a tour of one of the wards. Of course it was extremely intense, even in that brief time: wounded soldiers, anxious parents, young children visiting fathers who were very different from the ones who had gone away, partners coming into the patients' rooms in all kinds of states.

At the end of the tour, my friend turned to me and said, "You know, the nurses who can stay here (and keep serving) are not the ones who get lost in sorrow. The nurses who can stay here are the ones who can connect to the resiliency of the human spirit."

It's awfully easy to get lost in sorrow, long term, big time. Just last week offered up a lot of sorrow, for some quietly, for some publicly, for some with national import, and for some with no one at all to notice. My mother died when I was nine years old; I retain an acute sense of what it is like to be a nine-year-old girl, like Christina Green was in the last year of her life in Tucson. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 82 last Saturday; he was assassinated while still in his thirties. Violence and loss circled around and touched many, many lives every day last week -- as it does every week.

How do we come back to the resiliency of the human spirit? I often think that the most important step is realizing we need to. We don't want to be broken, of course, but we often seem to not want to focus on our own healing or happiness -- it seems selfish, unnecessary. But actually our own happiness and healing are what remind us of change and possibility, and form our resiliency, our sustained ability to flourish ourselves and to give to others.

Commonly we find resiliency through connection: to nature, to community, to inner strengths, to a sense of life bigger than the circumstances we see in front of us.

When the Buddha says, "Hatred will never cease by hatred; hatred will only cease by love," he is inviting us to connect to a law vaster and more abiding than our usual tendencies, as is Martin Luther King Jr. when he says, "Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love." When the poet Rainer Marie Rilke says, "Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us," he is pushing us to consider a whole different picture of life than we might be accustomed to. And when President Barack Obama says, "Our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern," he is urging us toward a vision that sees ourselves in one another, and dares us toward a moral imagination that gets bigger, not smaller, even when we feel so overcome.