Friday, 25 July 2014

Community Resilience by Guest Blogger Chris Skellett

Unknown2by Chris Skellett, Exisle Publishing:

Resilience, in the face of adversity, is seen in two parts.

Firstly, it requires us to maximise our capacity to live in the moment and to accept life’s twists and turns, but it also requires us to take stock and re-commit determinedly to valued goals.

Following trauma, some individuals will tend to grieve for the affront to their prior sense of contentment. The world will now seem unpleasantly challenging and they will be prone to depression. They may self-soothe inappropriately with excessively indulgent activities.

Conversely, individuals  with an achievement orientation may feel flattened and overwhelmed by the setback to their ambitions. They will be prone to frustration and anger at the futility of their previous efforts and the sudden lack of momentum to their lives.

Of course, we all carry aspects of both orientations, and we can learn to recognise these emotional markers as cues to prompt a change in perspective.

The depressive response requires us to set goals and expect ourselves to drive forward. An angry response requires us to slow down and be more accepting of events. Resilience requires us to move calmly yet purposefully through the minefield that our lives have become.

As a native New Zealander, I am privileged to be able to comment on the community resilience shown by the people of Christchurch following the tragic earthquake in February 2011. One hundred and eighty five people died and the heart was ripped out of the country’s second largest city. The trauma and devastation to people’s lives continues to play out as we speak.

Many businesses were destroyed. A lifetime’s work lost overnight. The iconic cathedral lay in ruins. The social fabric of many suburbs was in tatters as whole areas were ’red-zoned’ and deemed uninhabitable.

The on-going aftershocks required a particularly robust commitment to resilience, with every tremor challenging ones sense of well-being.

So, how did the people react? Two distinct themes emerged. Firstly, there was a huge sense of relief at having survived, which in turn generated a huge sense of gratitude about the privilege of being alive.

People valued holding each other. They sought out the company of family and friends. Music suddenly became more poignant to them, and poetry thrived. People re-defined what they felt was important in their lives.

As with other traumatic events, many tales of compassion and human kindness emerged over the subsequent months. The tragedy had allowed the community access to a very special experience of ‘being human’. Being resilient rested on a sense of knowing who we were, and valuing ourselves and each other.

This somewhat mellow, reflective state is not easily sustained however, and it was soon swept away by a different perspective on the crisis. Community leaders were charged with getting the city ‘back on its feet’, and economic demands required that trading resumed as soon as possible.

The emergency response had also swung into effect, and a student volunteer army emerged, evoking admiration for their commitment to help residents in a practical way.

Everyone with an achievement orientation now rolled up their sleeves and ‘got stuck in’. This was their moment to apply their enthusiasm for digging deep, grinding it out, and determinedly striving towards tangible goals.

There was now a different kind of resilience afoot. It was predicated on pride in the community’s ability to move on and to bounce back. Resilience now required individuals to be energised in response to adversity.

Christchurch has shown us that community resilience has two parts. Firstly, we see the need to accept set-backs in life, and to always look for the silver lining to a cloud. And when the goalposts shift, or when we draw an unkind hand from a deck of cards, we need to stay calm and embrace the experience without judgement.

Every minute of every day is to be savoured. We must never forget to celebrate and appreciate life for what it is, rather than feel regret that it was not how we had wanted it to be.

But acceptance in itself is not enough. We also need to respond positively to the challenge, and to look for what we can do to move forward. The ultimate reward for setting and achieving demanding goals is the sense of pride and satisfaction that can only be experienced through purposeful and meaningful effort.

The people of Christchurch are clearly resilient. They are quietly bonded in their response to common adversity, and the internal community cohesion has been strengthened by the trauma. Life feels good, and it is experienced more appreciatively than before.

They have learned to live more ‘in the moment’, and some of the petty ambitions that were held before the earthquake now seem pointless. Residents now take each day a step at a time. Resilience requires them to remember that every moment is to be savoured.

But also, there is a huge potential for community pride in the re-build. People are getting on with their lives, and moving forward. A creative new shopping complex constructed from shipping containers sprang up, and a new cathedral spire is on the way.

To be human is to search out opportunity and to be curious about how to regain momentum in life. To feel pride in one’s endeavours, and to effect change. Resilience also requires us to respond positively to adversity.

These two components of resilience apply to us all. To find our inner resilience, we must firstly know who we are, and celebrate life for what it is and whatever challenges it throws at us. We must always feel confident in ourselves. But also, we need to respond adaptively, and to look at what we can do to move forward with confidence and pride.

‘Resilience’ is one of the most admirable qualities of the human spirit. By nature, we can be either flexible and accepting of adversity, or else be determined and unrelentingly driven to achieve.

Our individual tendencies will draw us towards one set of resilience values or the other. To build an optimum inner resilience, we need to ensure that we carry characteristics from both sides of the continuum. There is clearly a balance to be struck.

Chris Skellett is a clinical psychologist, executive coach and author of When Happiness is Not Enough and The Power of Second Question. He will be guest speaker at the 2015 Happiness and Its Causes Conference.

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