by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
You know those little, colorful, ultra-bouncy Super Balls? That’s what comes to mind when I think of the word “resilience.” People and other beings who are resilient bounce back when they get dropped.
It turns out that how tough you are is not a measure of how well you bounce back. An iron ball is harder and stronger than a ball of synthetic rubber. But if you drop it, it just sits there in the little hole that it dug in the floor. Being flexible is closer to being resilient, but it isn’t quite the same thing. Water would be the ultimate in flexibility. It doesn’t just go with the flow; flow is its very nature. But if you pour out a bucket of water, it doesn’t hold together. It flows off, or evaporates. There’s no there there.
So what makes a rubber ball so resilient? What can we learn from whatever it is that makes balls bounce back?
Well, the first thing that makes a ball bounce is that fact that it lets itself be affected by its environment. When the ball hits the floor it gets pushed in. You can actually see this taking place with an inflatable bouncy ball—Super Balls are much too quick to see it happen. But unlike the iron ball, which holds to its shape no matter what, the rubber ball bends where it is pushed.
If you’re a person, getting dropped almost never looks like getting thrown out of an airplane. But there are plenty of times when it feels like we are falling, or have bottomed out. Like when a friendship ends; when we don’t succeed at something that matters to us; when someone we love dies; when we lose a job or a marriage or a physical ability; when someone we trusted betrays us. The list of ways that we can feel like life has dropped us can go on and on.
And when that happens, the first important piece of bouncing back is to bend to the circumstances. It doesn’t help to pretend that everything is fine. (“No, really just fine.”) The things that hurt us hurt us, and we need to be honest about that. The things that hurt us also change us. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most people would say that the times that they have learned and grown the most have been times when they felt dropped—when something changed in a way that was deeply painful and disorienting.
Because what happens to a rubber ball after it bends to the impact of the floor is that it pushes back. If you drop a bag of sand, it will bend to take on the shape of the floor as it hits. But then it just sits there. Resilience, bouncing back, is about the combination of bending to what happens to you and then pushing back. And what allows a rubber ball to push back is that it remembers its true shape. And going back to its true shape is what pushes it back up into the air. Resilience is about being able to push back against circumstances because you remember who you really are.
There are lots of things that can help us remember who we are: the support of people who know and love us; stories of other people who’ve made it through; meditation or prayer that helps us to return to center; any practice that we truly love, whether it be running, singing, writing, sports, gardening, riding a bike, dancing, etc., etc. We may not spring back to our true shape as quickly as a Super Ball, but the better we know who we are and honor what most matters to us, the faster we will be able to reclaim that shape. So even if everything is going smoothly in your life, it’s worth paying close attention to what shapes and heals and holds you.
Here’s one more important fact about a Super Ball. It’s really hard to predict just which way it is going to bounce. Resilience, pushing back into your true shape, doesn’t necessarily mean heading right back where you were before you got dropped. Bouncing back most often means heading up in a new direction—either just a shade off from where you were before or to a completely different part of the room. That’s what’s really exciting about resilience. It allows us to hold on to our true self while adapting to a world that is different, which can mean heading in a new direction ourselves.
Resilient people, resilient communities, even resilient ecologies function that way because they both accept changing circumstances and push back against them by holding to what is most essential and being prepared to change and adapt in ways that allow for a positive new direction. But here’s where the Super Ball analogy breaks down. Super Balls are safe to use in the house because they’re soft enough not to break things. They don’t change their environment. But resilient people and resilient communities not only change themselves, they can also find ways to change what is around them, pushing back in ways that shape the environment to be healthier or kinder or more compassionate for everyone.
So the next time someone says: “Just roll with it,” tell them, “I bounce!”