Recently I was sitting with my son and my wife while she read aloud the children's book "Stuart Little." She reached the part where Stuart, the mousy main character, on the romantic date of his dreams with an equally diminutive female named Harriet, plans to take her on a moonlit canoe ride. But Stuart refuses to continue with the date once he discovers a hole in his toy birch-bark canoe. Despite Harriet's suggestions that they pivot to dinner and dancing at her father's country club, Stuart can't sever ties with the idyll he had hatched. Ultimately, as shown in one of the book's illustrations by Garth Williams, he's left sitting alone, dejected.
"Hey," said my 6-year-old son, Macallah. "That looks like Dad." My wife, Liz, shot me a look of validated victory.
At work I meet my deadlines and keep my cool as well as anyone. Once I cross the threshold into the rest of life, though, all bets are off, as Liz often reminds me. Yet it took my little boy, pointing at that illustration of a sulking Stuart Little, to force me to admit what I've dodged for too long: I lack whole-life resilience, that ability to bounce back when upsetting or stressful things happen.
Sure, I have some modicum of resilience. I've always been pretty pugnacious, and that, psychologists say, helps.
Still, I'm what I call a Quick Sinker. I'm someone who struggles to stay buoyant when life's daily waters grow rough.
I'm not alone. Social media memes and news stories illustrate that many of us aren't getting by all that well — not at a time when we're overstressed, overcaffeinated, overly partisan and underrested, factors that cumulatively gnaw at our emotional stamina. If resilience weren't a problem for many of us, why is the Internet crummy with articles about unhealthy addiction to those two all-purpose escape valves, red wine and smartphones?
The topic of resilience has received a lot of media attention regarding children (think: grit factor and tiger moms). And the Internet is rife with stories about how to not let things get you down in the workplace. But when it comes to developing resilience in our private lives — with our family, at home and in public — few resources exist. Sure, you can find self-help books that help you navigate the grief and struggles of profound loss or trauma. But help for coping with garden-variety, everyday stressors? The predominating cowboy ethos is that we should pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
For my entire adult life I have assumed that my identity as a Quick Sinker was a fait accompli. My son's comparison of me with a swamped Stuart Little, though, was a wake-up call, and I decided it was time to break with fatalism.
Most psychologists and researchers have defined resilience as the ability, as the cliches put it, "to weather the storms of life" without much griping and to "turn lemons into lemonade."
Among the problems with these motivational mantras is this one: Most of us who lack these skills cannot utter such affirmations or simply decide to become more upbeat and positive after years of digging negative sluices in our neural pathways.
Instead, I find myself heading down the familiar old rut where I believe that the stressor I'm facing at that moment — and it can be as simple as a traffic jam or a conflict with my wife — will never dissipate. At that moment, all objective perspective gets pushed out with waves of dread.
I know intellectually that this reaction will be short-lived. But the fear that the problem may go on indefinitely is what Martin Seligman, who founded the positive psychology movement, describes as "permanence" in his 1991 book "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life."
Although such fears dissipate by day's end, the cumulative anxiety of being a Quick Sinker doesn't. I've come to understand why so many people numb themselves with a drink or two after work or after dinner. When I'm faced with additional, unexpected responsibilities, such as having to fix a clogged toilet or respond to an unexpected and complex email, my mind feels like a game of Jenga, and one more chore heaped on me will send whatever resilience I have left crashing down.
In "Leading a Life That Matters," a college course that I created, I tell students about an anecdote from Pema Chodron's book "When Things Fall Apart." In it, the American Buddhist teacher and nun recalls having the rug yanked out on her first marriage suddenly, unexpectedly. After spending days on the floor grieving and indulging in self-pity (understandably), Chodron turns her focus on, of all things, her suffering. She finds answers to and meaning in the very thing she desperately wants to deny: her deep emotional wound. For years, I have wanted to try Chodron's approach — which is similar to the way behavioral psychologists build resilience in their phobic patients — by pushing myself to experience the things I deeply fear.
I've often wondered: What would happen if I turned toward the very thing from which many of us notoriously run: the things that knock me off balance, depress me, push me toward gloom? Could I possibly find meaning in them and, in turn, develop whole-life resilience?
This is what Viktor Frankl talks about in his memoir "Man's Search for Meaning," an account of surviving Auschwitz. What saved Frankl was finding meaning and purpose in his darkest plight. At one point, Frankl, who was a psychiatrist, turns back after a seemingly successful escape attempt because he cannot abandon dying typhoid patients. "In some ways," he writes, "suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice."
My students love Frankl's book and, especially, this precept. But they often struggle to understand how it can possibly apply to their largely mundane, sheltered lives.
In response, I often ask them to imagine working part time at a fast-food restaurant (a reality for many of my students who come from working-class backgrounds). The job includes many thankless tasks, including cleaning toilets.
I tell the class that whenever I go into any public bathroom and find that it's clean, especially when I'm having a lousy day, I'm grateful. Really grateful.
"So," I declare, "if you consider that the dread and frustration you're experiencing at that moment might translate into making someone else's day better, even in some small way, maybe that sacrifice can minimize some of your own suffering."
I try to remind myself about this toilet analogy when I leave the classroom, but it's tough to circumvent the two ingrained loops that take over once I encounter quotidian stressors. A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Neural Circuits suggests why:
It found that the overall brain activity in mice behaving helplessly in stressful situations was considerably lower "compared to mice showing 'resilient' behavior." In particular, the researchers found this lower activity in areas of the brain associated with executive functioning — i.e., with processing and regulating emotions.
One region that was more active in helpless mice was the locus coeruleus. Researchers said they believe this plays a role in "stress-induced depression." Although I've never seen an MRI of my brain, I imagine that the pathways in my locus coeruleus are a maze of microscopic knots resembling the millstones that once hung from criminals' necks.
I hesitate to describe myself as "suffering" because this verb is generally reserved for the extremes — such as combat veterans, cancer victims and survivors of mass shootings who endure post-traumatic stress syndrome. Remembering those examples can be helpful when confronted with less profound problems. This was the coping technique used by a friend whom I met long ago in Maine. Whenever she felt really stressed, she disappeared to a nearby hospital emergency waiting room. "I just needed perspective to remember how small my problems are compared with other people," she told me more than once. Experts agree that perspective is an important tool in becoming more resilient.
That said, who gets to judge another person's suffering? Aren't there degrees of it that are relative to an individual's own experience? Does someone really suffer less just because his life has been less fraught, say, with poverty or extreme trauma? After surviving the Holocaust, Frankl — a psychiatrist for seven decades and a seminal figure in the existential and humanistic therapy movements — observed that suffering is, in fact, relative.
He compared it to an amount of a gas released into a tank, observing that, regardless of how little or how much gas is involved, the tank is filled "completely and evenly." If Frankl was correct, then even small-scale suffering shouldn't be dismissed outright: It may look like nothing to an outsider, but to someone who is hurting, it can fill all their emotional space. And it may even hold answers to the quest for greater whole-life resilience.
At least, that's what I'm slowly discovering.
A few weeks ago, I stopped at a suburban town center after work to clear my head amid the cold air and soothing strains of retail therapy. It had been a particularly challenging week, and I was overwhelmed from the stresses of living paycheck to paycheck on stagnant Bush-era wages (the first President Bush), making marriage work in the 21st century, negotiating the challenges of stepparenthood and facing the realization I would never become the type of husband or father I admired on such family-centric television shows as "Parenthood."
For the first time, I tried to get some distance from myself and considered what I could do to pull myself out of this tailspin. Do what Liz always suggests when I feel self-pity — "learn to be more grateful" — I told myself. I turned my face skyward (seriously) and gave thanks for my family, my health, the roof over our heads, and more. In other words, I summoned all of the things I knew I should be grateful for.
But the buoyancy of gratitude couldn't compete with the leaden frustrations of a Quick Sinker.
Walking with my head down, searching for answers in the scrubbed brick sidewalk, I nearly knocked into a panhandler. I gave him a dollar. "God bless you, brother," he mumbled as I walked away. His benediction must have delivered a shot of dopamine to my brain, because suddenly I surged with the "helper's high" that this neurotransmitter releases. I turned around and gave him another dollar, and as his tight face loosened, some small knot in my brain did the same thing.
A few moments later, I opened the door to a bookstore and turned to see an older woman hobbling toward it from 20 or 25 yards away. I waited and held it open for her to pass through. "It's nice to see that chivalry isn't dead," she said, smiling. My brain hummed.
On the car ride home, I spoke with Liz, whose frustration with me came through my smartphone for forgetting to transfer money to her for bills. My dopamine rush ceded to resentment and my shoulders sank into a familiar hunch. Then I thought about both people I had encountered a half-hour earlier. "Thank you for taking care of our bills," I said, a bit taken aback by my words. "It must be frustrating to have to keep asking me about money." Silence.
Eventually, Liz spoke. "It is. Thank you for acknowledging that." She added, "Who is this, and what have you done with my husband?"
It would be disingenuous to say that, at that moment, decades of accumulated neural millstones had simply crumbled away. I hadn't gone full-tilt Pema Chodron and found enlightenment. But an unfamiliar lightness overcame me, and my shoulders floated back up against my seat, helping me see above the tide of traffic with clearer vision than before.
Reiner, a lecturer at Towson University in Maryland, is writing a book about masculinity.