Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Resilience Means Giving Serendipity a Chance

Great Amazon reviews for Navy Seal Eric Greitens' new book, "Resilience":

If there's one thing special services soldiers know about, it's resilience, and Greitens, a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford PhD, is said to have created an elegantly insightful work.

I haven't read the book yet, but I feel prompted to try once again to explain my own resilience trick. It's such a simple thing, yet unbelievably hard to explain*. I've torn up many sheets of paper trying, but let's see if I can manage it this time. If you're in a hurry, skip to the condensed version just above the illustration, below!

Have you noticed that problems and setbacks often turn out, in the long run, to have been not so bad...or even positive? A wrenching break-up with a romantic partner allowed you to meet your one true love. A debilitating illness gave you time to read and think and work out deep problems. Your house burned down, and, with nothing to lose, you found the courage to make life changes your previous complacency would never have allowed.

As I recall dips that transformed into swells, I regret the time I wasted lamenting bad results before the game was over (and the game's never over until hearts stop beating!). Rather than wallowing in bad outcomes long after the actual injury, the smart move is to direct attention sooner toward the next scene.

Any point in time may later be recognized as having been the turnaround point. So why wait for future retrospection? Why not inhabit that outlook immediately? It's just a matter of shifting perspective.

It's always an option to release your grip on whatever just happened, and embark on the twisty, unknowable path to the next thing. Of course, that next thing may be another bad result. In that case, simply repeat. Aggregated failure can't weigh you down, only aggregated lamentation of failure. The problem's not the problem!

Rather than courageously hope for remote brighter future to arrive, the trick is to amiably shift focus forward; to let difficult moments be step one of the next chapter rather than step two of the previous one.

I'm not suggesting a heroic push toward victory from the pits of aggrieved desperation. For one thing, that's just another way to over-dramatize the situation, and I'm more interested in quashing my dramatic impulses. For another, you don't know what to push for, or what victory would look like. Situations where things worked out for the best always yield outcomes which couldn't have been predicted, much less pursued, at the time. It's all about the serendipity, baby, and serendipity works best if you simply make yourself receptive and responsive to its subtle machinations. Trying to force serendipity is like pushing a string.

Admittedly, it's an unnatural shift. Remaining receptive to serendipity is hardly a natural stance in the wake of bad news. We're conditioned to respond to disaster and disappointment by closing and clenching - the posture least expedient to turnarounds and most impervious to serendipity. That's why it often takes so long for disaster to morph into success. It's not that serendipity works slowly, it's that we are slow to embrace it, thereby failing to notice and engage with tide-turning micro-opportunities as they present themselves.

Happily, we humans can be trained to respond in counterintuitive ways. We can learn to steer, against instinct, into a skid. If you can train yourself to respond to adversity and setback with an open, loose attitude, redirecting attention forward rather than obsessively locking attention on previous injury, life transforms miraculously. Just from that one tiny adjustment.

It takes practice. But even by deciding to practice this, you'll be 95% of the way there. When a student driver seeks out icy surfaces to practice skid recovery, that very act of cheerfully seeking out the Scary Thing transforms her attitude toward ice. When the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune become an opportunity to practice "skid recovery", you've mostly completed the shift, before practice has even begun!

I'm no Navy Seal, but I've learned resilience via other channels. And while I'll enjoy reading Greitens' book, I'm nearly certain it will amount to some version of the above. Because the only way to overcome the pain and trauma of your own grippy attachment to a given bit of drama is to steer into the skid; to open wide, embrace the winds of fate, and bemusedly let serendipity carry you to the next scene and its infinite opportunity. Serendipity's the ever-willing rescuer, and resisting one's rescuer is never helpful!

Shorter version:
The longer you wallow in whatever just happened, the greater the probability you'll miss out on noticing and engaging with the opportunities which would have turned the tide.

Disaster and disappointment aren't the tombstones of hopes and dreams. Rather, they're the launchpad of all that's to follow.

It's easiest to express this visually:

Esoteric addendum: Nothing ever actually happens to you. Stuff happens around you. The awareness at your core - which has blithely hummed as it has peered, since early childhood, outward from your eyes - has never wavered amid the ever-changing plot points of your life.

Feel free to pass this on to anyone you know in the midst of Bad Scenes.

* - here are my previous efforts to express this: Perils Are Not Infinite; The Stories We Tell Ourselves; Ants v Humans; "So That Happened"; "Oh Shit" Antidote; The Real Secret

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