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Dr. Robert J. Wicks, author of Bounce:Living the Resilient Life, is also a professor at Loyola College in Maryland. In Bounce, Wicks suggests that simply becoming more self-aware can help us decrease stress and live life more fully. Below, OUP interviews Dr. Wicks about the importance of learning to live with resilience. Read Wicks’s previous OUPblog post here.
OUP: Resilience seems so important to how you live your life but is it really that essential?
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: Physician and author Walker Percy in one of his novels poses the question: “What if you missed your life like a person misses a train?” Unfortunately, in today’s stressful world with multi-tasking being the norm of the day, this is easy to do—especially for those who fail to pay attention to the forces which strengthen our inner life and help us grow through and from the difficult experiences all of us encounter.
OUP: But can resilience be learned? Some people seem born resilient and others seem to have difficulties dealing with adversity almost from the time they are born.
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: You have a point. Some people do seem more resilient all the way from childhood. However, that is not the crucial issue for leading a fuller life. Each of us has a range of resilience—in other words, the ability to meet, learn from, and not be crushed by the challenges and stresses of life. This range is formed by heredity, early life experiences, current knowledge, and the level of motivation to meet life’s challenges and enjoy each day to the fullest—no matter what happens! However, of even more import than the different ranges people have is their conscious decision to maximize the ways in which they can become as resilient as possible.
OUP: Is part of this resiliency-training, learning ways to avoid stress?
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: Yes and no. Living a full life is more than the absence of negative occurrences or pressures. The sources of all stress cannot—and probably should not—be prevented. Yet, there are ways stress can be limited and, more importantly, as those who study resilience report, the way stress impacts us does not have to be totally negative. As a matter of fact, each of us has an opportunity to become deeper and more compassionate in response to the stressors in our lives if we are aware of some basic practices to: contain and understand stress; seek to be more mindful; are reasonably self-aware; and are interested in learning how to maintain a healthy sense of resilience and perspective.
OUP: How did you get so interested in the concept of “resilience”?
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: For almost 30 years I have dealt with a unique kind of darkness called “secondary stress”—the pressures experienced by persons who are in the healing and helping professions. In observing and working with physicians, nurses, psychologists, educators, relief workers, counselors, and persons in full time ministry, I have observed that especially among the most resilient in these groups, how they experience even the most difficult encounters in life is quite telling.
OUP: In a nutshell, what would be some of the more essential ways to maximize your “resiliency range?”
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: Improving your own self-awareness through using a daily de-briefing program, developing a realistic but comprehensive self-care program, understanding better the practice of “mindfulness”, applying the recent findings on positive psychology, and ensuring that 4 types of friends are present in your interpersonal network would all contribute to strengthening your personal and professional resiliency.
OUP: That last point about needing “4 types of friends” intrigues me. What types of friends are you referring to with respect to becoming more resilient?
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: We all know we need friends. Psychology has also long emphasized the need for an excellent interpersonal network. I think anthropologist Margaret Meade expressed well what everyone knows in their heart when she said, “One of the greatest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don’t come home at night.” However, who makes up your “personal community” is also an essential element. In my work I have found that for our interpersonal circle to be rich we need, at the very least, four “types” or “voices” present—since one friend may play more than one beneficial role at different points in our lives. These four types of friends include “the prophet” who asks us “What conscious and unconscious voices are guiding us in life?” They also include “the cheerleader” who is sympathetic and supportive, “the harasser” who teases us and helps us laugh at ourselves to avoid the emotional burnout that results from taking ourselves too seriously, and finally the inspirational guides who encourage us to gather all of the information we receive from others so we can put this feedback to good use.
OUP: You also mentioned that resilience can be enhanced by developing a daily debriefing program and a comprehensive approach to self care. Would you give us a very quick sense of what is involved in doing this?
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: In terms of a daily debriefing, I wanted persons to be able to use a similar approach to the one professional helpers use since it has such a long proven track record in allowing them to process their day’s interactions, let go of the daily emotional “hot spots” so these events don’t keep them up at night, and learn from the day’s encounters so this knowledge can deepen them as persons and professionals. If we take out time to become intrigued by our own behavior, thoughts, and feelings, we can avoid wasting energy on projecting all the blame on others, condemning ourselves or becoming discouraged when things don’t change in our lives immediately.
With respect to self-care, each of us needs to have a program or “protocol” that is both comprehensive and doable.
OUP: A final question I have for you is with respect to “mindfulness”. What exactly do you mean by this term and why is it so important with respect to resilience?
Dr. Robert J. Wicks: I remember once seeing by a garden a little sign that was covered with mud. When I scraped the mud away, I saw that it said, “There is always music in the garden amongst the trees…but your heart must be quiet to hear it.”
Psychology, philosophy, and many of the world spiritualities extol the benefits of time spent in silence and solitude. In addition, it is beneficial to have a sense of mindfulness—being in the present moment with a sense of openness—as we move through the day’s interpersonal encounters. Formal mindfulness or meditation can sharpen our sense of clarity about the life we are living and the choices we are making, enhance our attitude of simplicity, let us enjoy our relationship with ourselves more and, as I note further in Bounce, provide numerous other benefits.
The really good thing about mindfulness is that it can be learned. It just takes reflection on some basic guidelines and a willingness to try some simple steps for a few minutes each day. The results can be truly remarkable in how centered and aware we can become. It is really a cornerstone of resilience.
Q: Would you sum up for us the lessons you are hoping people learn from Bounce?
A: The range of resilience is different for each person based on a unique combination of hereditary, psychological and sociological factors. However, if we are truly interested in resilience, the goal is to find ways to maximize our own range of resilience, and in doing so, improve our quality of life and the ability to continually renew ourselves. In studying resilience and putting into practice some basic lessons, we can begin to recognize—as resilient helping professionals have—that it is not the amount of darkness in the world that matters. It is not even the amount of darkness in ourselves that matters. It is how we stand in that darkness that makes all the difference in how we are able to lead our lives.