Developing mental resilience under the most dire circumstances

Developing mental resilience under the most dire circumstances

We’ve all faced situations in our lives where everything seems to be moving against us and the only way out appears to be a long slog forward. It could be a setback at your company, a lingering physical ailment or a bad set of co-workers. How do you move forward and develop mental resilience when the deck seems stacked against you.

I interviewed Chris Schumacher on the Rad Awakenings podcast. Chris murdered a friend (over some stolen drugs) and was sentenced to 16-years-to-life in some of the most dangerous prisons in California. He accepted a plea to avoid the death penalty, yet recognizing that as a “lifer” there was a good chance he never would leave prison.

He knew he couldn’t directly control if he’d ever be released. (In fact, when he started his sentence, governor Gray Davis was taking a hard line on lifers.) But he could control his own behavior, his mindset, his remorse, and his health. Chris adds:

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I did everything to prepare myself. I said yes to a lot things that other guys weren’t willing to do; “I don’t want to take that class, I’m afraid of going to that survivors panel, I’m really not ready to write those letters.” For each yes, each door I was willing to walk through, I found that more opportunities were waiting for me. I personally think life is defined by the things you say yes and no to. And you never know where that next yes is going to lead to.

This resilience can also be found in the story of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, described in his book . Frankl lived under the most horrific circumstances as a concentration camp inmate, surrounded by death, including those of this wife, parents and siblings.

Yet “Frankl concluded that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that, therefore, even suffering is meaningful” and that there’s choice in one’s action:

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”
And even in the most dire circumstances, humans have a powerful freedom:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 
And this offers us tremendous perspective for those of us with our First World problems.
Note: I am not creating equivalency between the causes of imprisonment between Frankl and Schumacher; instead, I’m comparing their mindsets upon imprisonment.

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