Resilience Squared

Never underestimate the enemy, as they say. I will add: Never underestimate your loved ones.

I don’t have any enemies that I know of, but even if I did I wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. Maybe I need to spend more time thinking of my loved ones and their capacity for growth.

I think I’m pretty good at that, generally. But I realized today that I have had a blind spot when it comes to the elderly. My assumption had been that after 50-60 year marriages, the widowers would simply wither away after their wives died.

Anecdotes of this nature abound, but stories of rebirth and flourishing, not so much (at least in my circles). I have witnessed now in 2/3 cases, these widows in their 80’s experience a resurgence in their well-being (the 3rd instance, I just don’t know enough about). It’s not so much that I didn’t think they had it in them, or that people can’t bounce back. Not at all. I just didn’t realize that it can happen late into the golden years.

My sense is that both men have always been pretty resilient. Both were pioneers and adventurers, setting off to unknown and far away lands to start a new life. Both were dutiful husbands for decades in a way that fills me with admiration and wonder.   Both were suddenly on their own rather unexpectedly. But after an adjustment and mourning period, something changed.

Grandad, still mobile and energetic, created a new life at the senior center. Soon he began hitting the town with his buddies. He continued to bake bread for the ladies, and pretty much had a great time.   He created a new life centered around his friends in the community, and lived a very full life for several more years until he passed.

We are almost at the 1 year mark since Mom died. After a difficult year of declining health, Dad had a little procedure that seemed to reverse the course of the illness, rewinding the clock by at least a year. He’s not as mobile as Grandad was, but today his spirits may never have been higher. He’s made a host of new friends and has a cadre of devoted caregivers that literally dote on him. He’s going to be 86 this year.

Dad and I talked about perseverance last night. He and Mom had ventured to this country on their own, knowing no one, mustering internal and external resources that I’m not sure that I possess. That they had the courage to create a prosperous life here with no money and no friends is a testimony to their grit and courage.

I tell my students that we faculty are really no different from most of them. The main characteristic for professional success, in my opinion, is just not giving up. My Mom used to call that stubbornness. I call it grit and perseverance.

Grit has gotten some good press lately. Angela Duckworth, positive psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, reports that grit is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. I suggest that it’s a predictor for life success as well, as evidenced by our little family. It’s never too late for us to remake our lives and flourish after a setback. That’s living (though aged) proof.

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