A Swimmer’s Lesson on Resilience by Lou Bergholz

In 2005, I was co-facilitating a series of workshops in southern Thailand. All the attendees were youth workers. We were convening to explore the topic of resilience. All the attendees were also survivors of the devastating Tsunami that had occurred on December 26th, 2004.

At dinner one night, one of our interpreters turned to me and gently inquired whether she could speak with me. She shared that the workshop material and conversations were making her think about many aspects of her own life, including her parenting. Her son was about seven or eight years of age at the time. She was very close to him, and it was clear that she loved him deeply. During the several weeks we were working together, she spoke to him on the phone at least once or twice a day.

As we spoke, she leaned in a bit closer and said, “I have a story about my son. I think it’s about resilience.” This is what she shared with me.

Her son returned from school one day, visibly upset. She asked him about his day, and he said, “Something happened today in school and I want to tell you about it.” She was nervous but determined to do everything she could to reassure him, so she encouraged him to share his experience.

He began, “Mom, before I tell you what happened, I have some questions. Is it true that before I was a boy, I was once a sperm?”

This was not the question she was expecting. Lost for words, she simply said, “Yes.”

“Mom,” he said, “is it also true that when I was a sperm, I was not the only sperm?”

Not knowing what else to say, she again said, “Yes.”

“OK,” he said, “I have one more question.” By this time, she was close to panic.

“Mom, is it true that when I was a sperm, we had to swim?”

She was completely dumbfounded. All she could do was nod and, once again, say, “Yes.”

Seemingly satisfied with these answers, her son finally appeared ready to tell the rest of his story.

“Mom, something happened in school today. And I hope you won’t be upset.” With that, he began to cry. “We had gym class today, and there were relay races. I tried so hard, but I lost every single race.”

Still confused, she tried to comfort him and tell him that it was OK.

Wiping away his tears, he said, “I know, Mom, but I just need you to know that once I was the strongest swimmer.”

I have spent much of the last 20 years as a student of resilience. I’ve been a student of the research, but primarily I’ve worked on designing youth programs and training staff on the “how” of fostering resilience. I even wrote a book on it, of which the previous story is an excerpt.

I’ve yet to teach or design anything on resilience that can truly rival the truth that I believe the “strongest swimmer” story reveals: we are resilient beings.

It is the story of human history. It is what has kept us lingering on this planet for many thousands of years. Our capacity as humans to cope with adversity is profound. Historically, one of the most differentiating aspects of humans as a species are the ways in which our social nature has proven adaptive and helped us survive. We hunted together. We gathered together. And the clans and communities we built have helped us evolve and thrive. Too often, the more complex, chronic, and systemic the adversity, the greater the resilience.

A tragedy that accompanies our collective resilience is that we are generally much better at seeing the inherent resilience in others, yet when we look in the mirror, we see weaknesses, failures, and all the broken parts.

We are resilient. We have been since the moment we were born. In fact, if you take the wisdom of the child from Thailand to heart, we have been resilient since our unique moment of conception!

We each have a resilient core, forged during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. And your outsides do not convey the profound resilience you have within. Yet, we are too often unable to see, feel, or source this resilience power.

We need others to shine a light for us. When I try to shine this light, here is what I find:

Showing up is resilience. We all have choices. And each day they show up to our program, to our classroom, or to work, we should feel the power they carry with them of having made a choice to be here with us, and not somewhere else or with someone less understanding.
Resistance is resilience. It may feel defiant or destructive, but deep inside, it is a loud, assertive, and crucial “No.” And “no” is protective. “No” is an attempt to create safety, which is essential to take risks and grow.
Asking for help is resilience. I’m so tired of the way we portray resilience as this stoic, individualistic endeavor. It is not. Resilience is relationship, support, and connection. Resilience is sharing our fears, our vulnerabilities, and our needs. It is allowing someone to approach us and take care of us, for a moment, or for a while.
Falling apart is resilience. There can come a time when we need to withdraw. In medicine, it is called the shell-core effect. When confronted with a life-threatening injury, our body can shunt blood flow from our extremities (the shell) and redirect it to our organs (the core) to survive. Falling apart may allow us to preserve the core aspects of who we are and protect our deepest resilience. It can allow us to regroup and rise again.

Our world has a thousand ways to remind us what we aren’t. We must remind each other what we are. We are all swimmers; strong, persistent, committed, and resilient swimmers.

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