Bouncing Back from Adversity

People bounce back from adversity and are even transformed by it far more often than we might guess.  How do they do it? Take for example, Malala Yousufzai, this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In October 2012, in Pakistan, a Taliban gunman shot her in the head on a school bus as she sat with her friends because of  her outspoken advocacy of girls' education. She attended the school that her father had founded.

Malala did not give up.  The bullets have intensified her commitment and garnered the support of the international community.  Closer to home, there are many unsung heroes who were celebrated at the 3rd Annual Family Resilience Conference sponsored by the Devereux Foundation on October 18, 2014.

The keynote speaker was Andrew Solomon, the best-selling  author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. His talk to about 175 parents and professionals was titled, “Our Differences Unite Us.” In his research about parenting children with special needs, he found difficult lives full of pain and complexity, but he was amazed at how much joy he discovered.

Solomon articulated the dilemma of parents needing to change and teach their children versus accepting them and loving them for who they are.  He found a vast gray area and concluded that equanimity is hard won between fixing (the illness model) and acceptance (the identity model).

While every child is a surprise and not as anticipated, he observed parents strongly attached to the child they have. He described how parents became in his words “grateful for the lives they would’ve done anything to avoid.” As the father of an adult child with autism, this has certainly been my experience.

What summed it up was Solomon’s statement that resilience is a shared commodity in that one person generates it in another. The individual, the family, and the broader society each facilitates the ability to bounce back and be transformed in the process.

After lunch, Paul LeBuffe, the Director of the Devereux Center for Resilient Children (http://www.centerforresilientchildren.org/),  facilitated a town hall meeting and panel discussion about personal and family resilience. Inspired by the keynote address, there was a spirited discussion about how families keep it together in the face of the ongoing stress.

The overall lesson of the day is captured in this quote from Andrew Solomon’s landmark book:

 “Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”