A Lesson in Resilience

I’m working on two writing projects at the moment: one is a novel and one is nonfiction. The novel is a thoughtful sort of love story that is as concerned about the characters’ growth as it is with romance. It explores issues that are important to me, including life as a young cancer survivor. There is a lot of humor and heart, and I’ve enjoyed writing it more than any novel I’ve written so far. In fact, I raced through the first draft in four months, the words flying from my fingers as if my characters were whispering their story into my ears. (No, I’m not crazy. At least, not any crazier than the average novelist.)

My boys in March 2020

The other writing project I’m working on is a memoir. I’m telling about my own cancer experience, from being diagnosed at 37 weeks pregnant, with the rush to deliver my youngest son so that we could quickly conduct staging scans and determine my treatment, to going through six grueling rounds of chemo, followed by surgery, 25 rounds of radiation, and continued infusions for a year to prevent recurrence. I went through all stages of my treatment with three young children while teaching virtually, in a hectic balancing act I recommend to precisely NO ONE. Hah! Of course, I also faced the abrupt onslaught of the pandemic right in the midst of my chemotherapy treatments. 2020 was quite the year; I found myself in massive global trauma compiled atop the personal trauma that is cancer. I am still healing two years later.

As a part of my memoir project, I’ve been talking with others about their own experiences with resilience. Yesterday, I was fortunate to talk with a former professor at my grad school who I honestly consider my greatest role model. When I started grad school in the fall of 2015, I had a one-year-old and I had just completed a couple of really rough years at my first teaching job. That small rural school had a heap of issues, and the superintendent at the time had a dismal attitude toward teachers, causing problems that led to high teacher turnover and leaving me with a tattered view of my own teaching abilities.

The first time I opened up about those two rough years to my role model, Prof. S., I actually cried in her office. I don’t cry in front of people, but I felt so comfortable with her, and I knew that I could trust her with any story I needed to tell. She was always reaching out to her students, guiding our group of Teaching Assistants with compassion and kindness at every turn. She taught in a clear, direct, personal manner that I admired from day one; it’s a style I hope to always emulate in my own teaching.

So when I spoke with her yesterday and she told me that the word she most associates with “resilience” is “adaptability”, I agreed with her immediately. “Resilience implies our adversity,” she said. “You can’t control it– you just have to adapt to whatever’s coming at you.”

I had created a list of traits that I think fit with “resilience”, and “adaptability” was, incredibly, already at the top of my list! Hearing Prof. S. speak only reassured me that I was on the right track in this particular writing project.

“Adaptability” and “resilience” are vital to our world today. My husband turned on the news this morning before the kids were up, and of course, we were inundated with news of Putin’s war on Ukraine. I find that I’m extra emotional after cancer, so my eyes immediately filled with tears when I saw the images of the families hiding in subways and arriving as refugees in Poland, the country my maternal great-grandparents left about a hundred years ago. I felt pride seeing my Polish brothers and sisters welcome the Ukrainians, but also pain that people had to be torn from their homeland so abruptly and so cruelly. We have seen on the news that the Ukrainian people are very resilient. I have never had to flee my country for safety, but I know these people will find the need to be adaptable, and that they will succeed through their own resilience and with the love and support of others.

Prof. S. told me, “I think the human spirit is so alive in everybody that there is no way to tell” how we will deal with adversity until we are faced with it. I feel that people are pulled one of two ways when others around us face adversity– either we’re craning our necks back toward the car crash in curiosity or we’re putting our head down in the sand to avoid seeing anything unpleasant.

However, as a writer and a teacher, I think the most valuable thing we can do when others are faced with adversity is to listen. We need to hear their stories, take their words to heart, and help them any way we can. I believe this is true of any type of adversity, which is why I want to open my ears to my husband’s stories about growing up in an orphanage, or my friends’ stories about discrimination and immigration, or my fellow survivors’ stories about pain, recurrence, and loss.

There are so many stories to listen to, and many of them are painful, easy to want to tune out. Looking around my own country, I think many of us have tuned out unpleasantness for too long, creating this feeling that we’re almost immune to others’ struggles. This only creates division and aggression towards some supposed “other”. But we’re all human. I’ve been hopeful these last few days seeing stories about people wanting to help these refugees, and I hope this urge to help will continue to stretch across the world to anyone in need of hope, love, and refuge.

6 thoughts on “A Lesson in Resilience

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