01/03/2012 09:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


Resilience- Part 1

Resilience is in the news; witness the recent NPR story on the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program and the robust discussion it has galvanized.This is not an esoteric, intellectual debate. The number of suicides among soldiers, for a second year running, threatens to outpace the number of soldiers killed in theater.

Human beings seem infinitely adaptable. Overall, this pliability has served us well, although sometimes it is more of a curse than a blessing. Neuroscience abounds with tales of the plasticity of our brains. It is wonderful to know that we can make new connections in our thinking and beliefs and in our relationships. How cool is it that these new connections may express and reflect changes at the level of our nervous system!? I used to have a tee shirt, wore it into the ground. On the back it read: God isn't finished with me yet. It is inspiring to know that transformation can continue throughout the life span.


But are humans infinitely adaptable? No. If resilience is the capacity to bounce back, to rebound from adversity, does it work like children playing on a trampoline? Get on, jump as prescribed, and volia, our bounce returns? I don't think so. True resilience -- inner strength and suppleness of body, mind and spirit -- is hard won and cannot be manufactured overnight. Like PTS, it has gone by many names; hardiness is one. I have called it meditative muscle, but do not think Arnold exhorting us to "pump it up." It is not a muscle that flexes on demand, and the gym we work it out in is our whole life.

There is no silver bullet, no quick fix potion that will make a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine invulnerable to five, six or more tours of duty in today's war zone and the separations from loved ones. And I'm referring to all practices, however New Age or old school. Meditation, yoga, and qigong are ancient ways to re-connect with our vitality. Preliminary research data indicates their value, within limits, and we teach and practice them at Coming Home retreats™. But they can be reduced to New Age fads if we expect them to work like Mr. Clean: good for windows, good for floors and counters, good for everything; and works fast, too! When we look for instant solutions what we find often turns out to be the flavor of the month. We need to change the way we think about caring for our veterans and families. We need to think more systemically.

It's not that veterans don't benefit by having a palette of innovative options; they do. With choices, they can experiment, and by experimenting they may find some relief. But we should not expect a Teflon soldier, spouse or couple to result from the use of any single technique. And we must be alert to the risk of inadvertently implying that there is something defective with the service member, veteran, or family member who does not respond to a new approach.

What does laughing and weeping, the subject of my last post, have to do with resilience? An important finding from attachment research and spiritual practice is that it's not primarily what we've been through that determines our level of security and wellbeing; it's our capacity to reflect on and find meaning in it. But here's the double whammy: thinking, feeling, dreaming, reflection and meaning-making can be dismantled through repeated war zone or other trauma; they're not available when we need them most.

So we need to leverage intrinsic healing forces that help re-grow these compromised capacities. One key capacity is holding the sorrows and joys of life in the same hands: now laughing, now weeping; now supported in our sorrow or other strong emotion, now touched by life's simple tender mercies. Another capacity that builds and expresses inner strength is the ability to both receive and provide support.

It's not like a magic trick; presto change-o, now you see it, now you don't (and visa versa). Suppleness of heart and mind is a hard won capacity. It takes a village, a particular set of profoundly caring and committed relationships. In assisting veterans and their family members, we don't have to look far for the fuel; it is there, untapped, in service members' unquestioning love and support for their buddies, in bonds forged among fellow spouses and partners, parents and grandparents, siblings, children and teens.

Unit cohesion has been found to be a preventive factor in soldiers' response to combat-related stress. Let me tell you a secret, hidden in plain sight: Community is the unit cohesion of civilian life. But wait! The quick fix strikes again??