One morning I passed an acquaintance unbuckling her daughter in the car. As we exchanged pleasantries, I could not help reflecting on how cheerful she seemed. This interaction would not be considered extraordinary if not for the fact that she was unbuckling her eight-year-old handicapped child who requires maximum assistance with every task.
I wondered – if I had such challenges, would I be so upbeat? How was she so resilient? Why is it that when some people are faced with tremendous challenges they persevere – and do so without complaining? I wondered if resilience was reserved for the elite few. I began to search for the secret to resilience. It was an endeavor that led to a wellspring of information that changed me on a personal level.
Judaism requires that we strive for resilience. “Sheva yipol tzaddik vekam” (Mishlei 24:16). A righteous person falls seven times and gets up. Resilience requires uplifting ourselves, literally and figuratively. One might mistakenly assume that this trait is reserved for a select few. However, a study by the American Psychological Association shows that resilience is not an innate quality; rather, it can be developed by anyone. The following stories exemplify how the ability to persevere involves fine-tuning both physical action and mental attitude.
My father-in-law, Dr. H. Leon Pachter, was in Pittsburgh delivering a medical lecture. He headed to the airport early Friday morning with plans to be back home by Shabbat. Traffic was stopped on the highway due to an accident, when suddenly there was a series of thunderous noises. It was an out-of-control eighteen wheeler, knocking cars out of the way.
My father-in-law and his driver could only watch and pray they would not be hit. But they were hit – and were sent tumbling down the cliff adjacent to the highway. Despite landing sideways, my father-in-law and the driver were able to get out safely.
After making sure everyone hurt was cared for, my father-in-law began to search for a way to get to the airport. He grabbed his carry-on and started to climb up the ravine until he reached the highway. Since the cars were at a standstill, he decided to walk. Eventually a different taxi driver, recognizing my father-in-law from the hotel, offered a ride. He made it home for Shabbat safe and sound.
Most people in that circumstance would be shocked and overwhelmed. Yet my father-in-law proactively helped others and himself. He kept going no matter how the odds were stacked against him.
Objectively speaking, my father-in-law’s life has been filled with struggle and suffering. He was born on the run from the Nazis. His earliest memories are of waiting hours in line for a bowl of soup at a displaced persons camp. When he arrived in America he was five years old and began working soon thereafter, milking cows on the family farm in freezing weather and helping deliver the milk via sled. His mother passed at a young age. When I asked him to pinpoint what gave him his rock solid resilience, he answered:
“First and foremost, my mother. I shall never forget what she said when I was in school with students who were both brighter and better prepared academically. In my prior school, secular studies had not been deemed important. My mother, seeing that I was struggling, told me in Yiddish, “The one who wants it is better than the smart one.”
And indeed my father-in-law became number one in his class and later achieved great success in his chosen profession. When we have a goal we are working toward, we find the inner strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
An older couple shared their story of escape from Iran during the revolution. With small children, they fled in the middle of the night through the desert via motorcycle. With merely the shirts on their back they walked for twelve days at a time in extreme weather with minimal food or drink. Their journey was dangerous and they faced a plethora of trials most of us cannot fathom. Although their eyes welled with tears as they recounted their experience, their overall attitude was one of joy, warmth, and gratitude. Their spirit had remained unbroken.
Asked what gave them the strength to continue despite the hardship, they replied: “It was for the children. We wanted to give them a better life; to give them the ability to live freely as Jews.”
Their burning desire to provide for their children gave them the inner strength they needed.
Resilience is something we all need no matter how large or small our obstacles. One way to develop resilience in both action and attitude is by putting our deepest aspiration in writing. Acknowledging our goals, even to ourselves, creates a chemical change in the brain and keeps us focused. Everything transforms when we are suddenly working toward a goal.
The other night my son expressed his desire to get all A’s in school. I encouraged him to write down some smaller goals that would help him achieve his larger one. He proceeded to write three helpful actions: study hard, ignore kids talking during class, and read daily. We posted this on his bedroom wall, and so far he is succeeding.
Having goals not only stimulates our action resilience, it also helps shape our attitude resilience.
My sister-in-law was recently given the Fitbit watch that counts one’s steps. To maintain overall health, one should walk 10,000 steps daily. Constantly on the move, my brother’s wife assumed that her steps surpassed the recommended level. To her utter shock, she was reaching a mere 5,000 even on her “nonstop” days. This watch literally kept her on her toes. She now tries to increase movement in small ways. She parks farther from the store, and walks during carpool line.
After hearing her enthusiasm (and using her watch), I experienced a similar transformation. Beforehand, there were so many daily moments when I felt annoyed about having to exert “unnecessary” energy. I dreaded walking upstairs to get yet another diaper for the baby, or unloading the groceries after a long day. As soon as the “10,000-step-goal” was in place, though, my attitude took a 180-degree turn.
Instead of trying to pass the buck for those responsibilities, I found myself looking forward to them. Nothing changed in my life other than my attitude. Yet with a new goal in place, everything changed.
That is when my paradigm shift occurred. The Fitbit watch helps shape us in a physical manner. I realized that all the struggles and even minor annoyances sent our way are meant to help us develop into spiritually healthier people. They help shape us into becoming the individuals we are destined to be.
The next time I started to feel my challenges were too tough, or caught myself saying “I can’t,” I stopped myself. Instead, I simply thought: “I’m getting closer to my 10,000 today.” This phrase can put a smile on our face as we truck along.
On the highway of life our goals may feel insurmountable – but if we merely put one foot in front of the other, Hashem picks us up along the way. We can reach our spiritual 10,000. We just have to want it.
(This article was written in honor of Hirsh Leib Ben Shoshana and as an iluy nishmat for his mother, Shoshana bat Avraham.)