Dr. Gary G. Taylor
When the Road is Difficult and the Way is Rocky—The Need For Resilience
Life is full of challenges. After naming an impressive list of potential calamities, the Lord said to the Prophet Joseph: “…know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D & C 122:7). It’s apparent from this scripture, and the experience of those of us who have been around awhile, that serious growth requires serious challenge. Whether it’s a muscle, our personality, our intellect, or our spirit, growth requires effort against resistance.
Since this is an inevitable and necessary aspect of mortality, learning to face adversity and stress positively is an important life skill--although it’s a skill that many have yet to acquire. It’s interesting how people handle the same kinds of adversity and difficult situations so differently. Some crash and burn while others grow and become stronger even in response to the same or very similar challenges. This fact has led to research in recent years attempting to identify factors separating each group. The term “resilience” has been used to describe a set of attributes that set those who grow and prosper under adversity apart from those who do not.
Being a resilient person is obviously an ideal for everyone; but it can be particularly important for full-time missionaries. Full-time missionary service can be extraordinarily stressful; while at the same time, many normal coping strategies are not available while serving. For example, a missionary under stress is typically not free to go off alone and work through a problem. It is usually not possible to go for a long run, read a novel, play a video game; or talk a problem through with a trusted friend or family member back home.
There is good news, however. Largely because it can be particularly stressful, full-time missionary service also provides a wonderful opportunity to grow and become more resilient. And this opportunity for growth applies to virtually everyone. Even though some seem to come into this life more blessed with attributes that contribute to resilience than others; resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed. There is hope for everyone. If we are not yet a resilient person, it is possible and not too late to become one.
This conclusion, along with a list of attributes that contribute to resilience can be found in a paper published by the American Psychological Association and available online at www.apa.org/ . The article entitled “The Road to Resilience” identifies several of the attributes associated with resilience; such as:
The most important attribute is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family.
The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry through with our plans.
A positive and realistic view of oneself and confidence in strengths and abilities.
Skills in communication and problem solving.
The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
The APA article also provides a useful list of ten ways to build or strengthen resilience in ourselves. Of course, the APA article is just a brief summary of the extensive social science literature available on the subject of resilience. And it doesn’t consider the unique benefit of LDS theology and practice in developing resilience; nor does it discuss ways in which misunderstood LDS theology and practice might undermine the development of resilience. Following are a few ideas on the subject from an LDS perspective.
How Can Understanding the Plan of Salvation Help Us Be More Resilient?
Within the framework of the Plan of Salvation, we learn that we all lived before becoming mortal; and that we volunteered to come here as mortals in order to be tested; and in order to grow through experiences available nowhere else. In various scriptures such as D&C 138:56 we learn that we were informed, prepared and even called before we were born to a certain life path—an individual Plan of Salvation as it were. Scripture also teaches us that God is our literal Father (D&C 76:24; 93:29), that he loves us (John 3:16) and that his whole purpose is to see his children become eternally successful (Moses 1:39). The Plan of Salvation teaches us about the indispensable role the Savior plays, and how grateful we should be to him. We can see his love for us, and especially his compassion, by understanding that he volunteered to experience every negative feeling and circumstance that we might ever encounter, and to a degree beyond our comprehension (see D&C 19). Given these truths, following are some conclusions that, if understood, believed, and remembered when in crisis, can help any of us be more resilient.
1. We knew in advance what we would be up against in mortality; and yet we shouted for joy at the prospect of coming here (Job 38:4-7). We would never have been so happy if we didn’t know two things. First, we knew that we could do it. Once here, it might seem impossible to go on when in the middle of affliction; but that simply isn’t true. We can always keep going; and we know that we will be helped when our resources are at an end--truly at an end, not just when we think we can go no further. Second, we knew that it would be worth it. No matter how much we suffer here, we knew that it would be a small price to pay for the advantages that await us (D&C 84:38). Few things could better motivate us to hang in there when facing trouble than to remember what we once knew to be fact: we can do this; and it will be worth it!
2. As noted earlier, one of the most important factors in resilient people is having loving and stable connections to friends and family. Emphasis on the family and the repeated effort to strengthen family and other relationships in our LDS faith certainly helps develop resilience in those fortunate enough to be raised in households that follow inspired guidelines. Our faith also informs us that we can have a stable and supportive relationship with our Father in Heaven. Knowing that God, our omnipotent Father, is committed to helping us be successful can go a long way toward helping us build confidence in our ability to solve problems and to make the best of any situation. Living by the motto, “with God’s help, I can do this” will certainly bolster confidence in our ability to deal successfully with challenges.
3. In a similar way, but more specifically, it can boost our confidence to remember that we can have real time support in every situation through the ministration of the Holy Ghost. This gift can comfort us when needed and provide insight and instruction regarding how to handle tough situations. Even more to the point, this help can come in real time exactly when we need it to strengthen us and give us new direction. Granted, the support and direction we think we need is not always immediately available; but in God’s framework, which is the only one that really matters, the help we actually need will always be given when we need it.
4. It’s also true that our theology emphasizes virtues that when developed will inevitably increase resilience. For example, when we become really good at forgiving, the pain in having been offended is so much easier to handle. Charitable thinking and acting toward others deepens our interpersonal relationships; which as previously noted, is a big factor in resilience. Patience and longsuffering, the ability to endure uncomfortable circumstances, is almost a synonym of resilience. Meekness, allows us to learn from others in developing good communication skills and problem solving ability. And so it goes for many other virtues. What we are taught in the LDS church will, when applied, go a long way toward helping us develop needed resilience.
5. Knowing that life is a test puts an important perspective on our trials. It gives meaning to suffering and hope that whatever pain we experience is worth enduring. Extra motivation can come from knowing that our performance is being measured, and that our efforts are being cheered by supporters both seen and unseen.
6. Our gratitude to the Savior for his enormous gifts to us can also be motivating. Although we know it’s impossible, it’s natural to want to do everything we can do to repay our benefactor for the incomprehensible blessings we have been given. Also, when we begin to realize the depth of what He went through for us, it can help us face up to our thimbleful of adversity.
How Can Misunderstanding LDS Theology Get in the Way of Developing Resilience?
A well-loved and often quoted scripture found in 2 Nephi in the Book of Mormon reads, “Men are that he might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). And of course that’s true. In general terms, that is the grand purpose for our going through this mortal experience. Sometimes, however, we assume that we should be happy and have joy in this life on an ongoing basis. That can lead to parenting and a society that is too quick to do everything possible to avoid hurt feelings. Fearing hurt feelings or painful outcomes can lead to a lack of discipline and a lack of accountability for bad choices. It leads to unhealthy forms of political correctness in which the virtue of tolerance overrides and discredits all other virtues. It also fosters a tendency toward self-centeredness as we constantly monitor whether we are happy or not; and make decisions which we believe will lead to our happiness, often at the expense of those more important things that really matter. And all of this will undermine resilience. Resilience requires a philosophical acceptance of a certain amount of suffering, and mistakes; along with a conviction that all of this is good for us in the long run.
In a similar way, our theology promises spiritual insight and comfort; as well as the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. This can lead us to expect that we will be guided in every instance to avoid mistakes; and/or that we will feel spiritually connected at all times. Neither is going to happen. We will be inspired and guided when we actually need to be; but at times we will be left to our own devices in order to maximize learning and motivate repentance. Those who are living worthy and have received the gift of the Holy Ghost can expect to have this divine influence at all times; but they aren’t necessarily going to feel that presence at all times. Mental and physical illness, distraction, fear, lack of faith and many other factors can get in the way of us feeling the presence of the Spirit, even when it is with us. With respect to full-time missionary service, even though miracles are bound to be infrequent and progress is always a matter of peaks and valleys, missionaries sometimes lose faith in themselves and in the work they are doing when miracles are too far in between and/or when they don’t see constant progress in themselves or their work. Losing faith in themselves and the work they are doing, of course, undermines resilience.
Latter-day Saints sometimes misunderstand scripture such as Matthew 5:48 which encourages us to be perfect. Even though perfection is clearly not possible in this world, many of us put far too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect in the here and now. This will always undermine resilience for a number of reasons. For instance, perfectionism leads to all or none thinking and behavior rather than stay-the-course ongoing effort. Self-confidence is lost when there are too many failures, as always happens when we expect and need perfect outcomes. In the same way, too many failures can destroy motivation for continued effort. Furthermore, perfectionism or thinking things must be done a certain way can block creativity and innovative problem solving; which are both important ingredients in a resilient person.
Ten Positive Ways of Thinking Based on the Above Points That Will Foster Resilience
Boiling the ideas discussed above down, following are ten ways of thinking from an LDS perspective that will contribute to improved resilience.
1. As I clearly understood before coming here, no matter how difficult, I can do this and it will be worth it.
2. My Father in Heaven is fully invested in me being successful in this life; and with His help I can solve every problem and do every thing that really matters.
3. I will do my best; and God will do the rest. If it still doesn’t work out the way I hope, I know that it won’t matter in the long run.
4. More often reviewing and better following the simple instruction found in scripture, and in general Church teachings will make me a more successful and happier person.
5. I’m not going to be happy and at peace all the time; and that’s the way it must be if I am to grow into the person I want to become.
6. There will be peaks and valleys in my spiritual feelings and personal progress; and that’s OK as long as I keep trying.
7. I’m here to prove myself. When things are at their worst, I have the best opportunity to do that. Serious growth requires serious challenge.
8. However uncomfortable, suffering the consequences of bad choices is a good thing.
9. Any sacrifice I make is the least I can do in appreciation for the incredible gifts I have been given.
10. I will always do my best under the circumstances I face; but I am not going to worry about making mistakes along the way, or allow myself to feel like a failure if the results are not perfect.