Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste


The Chinese written character for crisis is actually two characters: danger and opportunity.  Resilience is certainly coping effectively with any perceived danger or threat to our safety and well-being, bouncing back from struggles and setbacks.  It is also bouncing forward. (transforming bad breaks into breakthroughs, as my friend Michaela Haas says in the sub-title of her book Bouncing Forward.)  Learning lessons, finding new strengths, opening to new views and possibilities.

The sudden change of the title of my new book from The Resilience Toolkit to Resilience (same sub-title) was in response to one of those crises that called forth many of the practices of resilience I teach and try to live, opening up new opportunities for learning.  I explore some of that learning in this newsletter, offering some of what I teach in the new book about facing and dealing with the challenges and crises of life at any level of disruption to our resilience, from barely a wobble to serious struggles and sorrows to the trauma of “too much.”

Death of a Loved One

The potential “too much” could be the death of a loved one.  For me, the death of my brother Barry a few weeks ago.  Sudden, from a heart attack.  But not unexpected.  Barry had had serious health issues for many years.

Still, a shock, needing many resources for resilience.  I flew back to Michigan the next day for a small family memorial service that weekend. So much history, so many memories, seeing the same family photos in the den that I have in my hallway.  It was the love and support and connection with family and friends there, love and support and connection from friends back home, that made feeling the hole opening up doable, even opening up to the visceral moments: “Wow. Life is so precious and so fleeting.”

Practices of Resilience

So what were the practices that helped turn experiencing the sudden death of a loved one into an opportunity to treasure and honor life?

* Open-hearted communication with kind and caring people

Death has a way of cracking the heart open to the vulnerabilities we share as human beings. Any fear, despair, anger, has a a chance to dissolve and fall away, held in the compassion and caring of common humanity.

* Memories and photos, stories and poetry

I read the poem Farewell by Rabindranath Tagore.  The first lines….

Peace, my heart.

Let the time for parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death, but completeness.

Let love melt into memory

And pain into song.

People shared stories both respectful and hilarious.  Words and images that could transport us beyond the personal to the profound, beyond the mundane to the mystery.  From the scared to the sacred.

* Nature

My sister-in-law Mary and I sat for hours in the garden my brother spent so many years tending, sitting on the outdoor furniture he had spend so many years building, watching the birds and dogs he loved feed and play. Opening to the cycles of life and death on this earth, the rhythms of every moment of life, of breath itself, arising, falling away.

* Preparation  

My brother and I had talked through all of his end of life documents; I had always made sure I told him at the end of our weekly phone calls that I loved him. More than that, many years ago, I had participated in a Year to Live group after our father died, 10 of us imagining we knew we were going to die within a year, using meditations and exercises in monthly meetings for a year, to face our own mortality and embrace the opportunities life was giving us while we were alive. More recently, reading Frank Ostaseski’s The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully just a few months before my brother died.  Cherishing the wisdom of practicing living life fully, honoring another person’s life fully.

* Positive Resources

My brother and I lived thousands of miles apart all of our adult lives, almost on different planets in many of our lifestyle choices, in different worlds in personalities and preferences. But we still shared many of the core values of growing up in the heartland of the Midwest, and found enough common ground to treasure the weekly phone calls, especially in the last decade as we got older, nurturing the affection and respect we had for each other.

So I could return from the memorial service, sit in my garden, and treasure the Snoopy flag my brother gave me: Live. Laugh. Love.  And the Buddha statue in the living room, the Irish blessing in the hallway, the coffee mug: If all else fails, pet the cat.  My brother gave me the title for my first book Bouncing Back.  “Resilience. What’s that? Oh, I know.  It’s bouncing back from the terrible.”  And the music of the chimes from the clock in his living room keeps me company in my own head now, a gentle presence and comfort.

* New Opportunities

I had heard of my brother’s best friend of 45 years, Gordon Berg, many times and Gordy had heard of me, but we had never met, never being in my brother’s home at the same time.  I called Gordy as soon as my sister-in-law called me with the news, and over the weekend we shared  phone calls and emails and texts, Gordy sending flowers and stories and songs to the memorial service.  We resonated in our love (and sometimes struggles) with my brother.  And by the time the memorial weekend was over, Gordy proposed, “Why don’t you become the sister I never had and I’ll become the brother you just lost.”  Magic emerging out of the moment. Right on.

I had only been home from my brother’s memorial service for three days when a very different and more difficult crisis arose. Essential to not let this one go to waste either.

Threat of a Lawsuit

A stress reduction and wellness program had common law trademarked the name “The Resilience Toolkit” for one of its workshops and was threatening to sue for damages if my publisher New World Library didn’t cease and desist from using The Resilience Toolkit as the title of my book.  Oy vey.

By law, training programs can be trademarked but book titles cannot be unless the book title is the title of a program.  Not the case for my generic resilience toolkit.

Sadly, out-of-the-gate, the tone and approach of the program with the common law trademark was very aggressive, even bullying, no room offered for negotiation, exploration, and compromise.  My book, based on 25 years of clinical practice and seven years of training clinicians and lay people on the international workshop circuit, was already at the printer, scheduled to be printed within 48 hours. No one really wanted to spend six months and a small fortune in court for the right to use The Resilience Toolkit as the title of my book. If New World Library could get a new cover and text to the printer by early the next week, the publication date would slip by only two weeks.  The editorial staff and I decided within ten minutes, even if we won our case and we probably would have, the entanglement with this group felt potentially too toxic and not worth derailing the momentum of a book already written and ready to be printed and birthed into the world.

So discerning options and we hoped wise action…the decision to change the title.  Drop the “toolkit.” (and toolbox, workbook, handbook, etc.). Keep the sub-title: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster.  Focus on the true core of the book and the research/teachings it’s based on – Resilience. What every practice in the book is about. The stake in the ground for the integrity of the book, so to speak.  This is what I teach; this is what I offer.  This is the “brand” I claim.  There’s strength in knowing who you are and living that in the world. We felt we had dodged a bullet. Gratitude, relief, pride.  The printer could stay close to schedule We could bounce forward.

Practices of Resilience

So what were the practices that helped regulate a potentially reactive response to a threat and bring clarity, perspective, and options to the fore?

* Integrity of intention

At some point in the meeting I remembered something the Dalai Lama had taught: “My protection rests on the tip of my motivation.”  I knew the integrity of my intentions, writing and teaching practices to help people strengthen their capacities to deal resiliently with any challenge or crises that would disrupt their safety and well-being. I knew the integrity and intentions of New World Library, “publishing books that change lives.”  Our core values were solidly anchored in providing readers with tools and choices that could help them skillfully cope with disappointment, difficulty, and even disaster.

* Collaboration and teamwork

Anyone’s nervous system revs up in the face of perceived threat or danger; it mobilizes us to take action to meet the threat. (The nervous system shuts down – de-mobilizes – if actions to meet that threat or danger seem ineffective; we withdraw and collapse.)  Meeting in person engaged the social engagement system in everyone’s nervous system – the sense of safety and trust could activate the “ventral vagal brake,” regulating that spike of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system; we could stay mobilized for action but clear in our thinking, not over-reactive, not shut down into withdrawal or collapse.

The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out. – James Baldwin

* Mindful awareness

Everyone in the room had years of practice, formal and informal, in “knowing what you’re experiencing while you’re experiencing it.”  Awareness and acceptance of what was happening and our reactions to what was happening.  Everyone was able to stay present, staying in the “range of resilience,” feeling and dealing.

* Response flexibility

How you respond to the issue…is the issue. – Frankie Perez

All of us could maintain the bandwidth needed to open to the big picture, shift gears, shift perspectives, discern options, make wise choices.

New Opportunities

Many times a day I get to practice what I teach.  What tools of strengthening and recovering resilience can I draw on right now, in this moment, to meet this moment?  My teacher and mentor Sylvia Boorstein teaches, “May I meet this moment fully; may I meet it as a friend.” (At least being friendly to the opportunity.) Deep wisdom, a lifetime of practice. Finding the lessons to be learned: “What could we have done differently? What would we do differently next time?”

And…Learning, learning, always learning.

I’ve been posting Weekly Quotes for 11 years, along with e-newsletters for the same 11 years and Resources for Recovering Resilience for the last 7 years. I posted quotes about Learning and Growing from Mistakes and Failures as recently as February 2018. Among the pith wisdom of that post:

Yes, risk-taking is inherently failure-prone.  Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing-taking.

– Tim McMahon

Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.

– Phyllis Theroux

Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but on error also.

– Carl Jung

By seeking and blundering we learn.

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As you begin to take action toward the fulfillment of your goals and dreams, you must realize that not every action will be perfect.  Not every action will produce the desired result.  Not every action will work.  Making mistakes, getting it almost right, and experimenting to see what happens are all part of the process of eventually getting it right.

– Jack Canfield

Don’t be afraid to fail.  Don’t waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from our failures and go on to the next challenge.  It’s OK to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.

– H. Stanley Judd

There are no mistakes.  The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the place we’ve chosen to go.

– Richard Bach

Embracing the lessons the “crises” of the last few weeks have taught me. Moving beyond naivete; learning the ropes of this business, so I don’t give myself enough rope to hang myself. 

And of course, embracing the deep wisdom of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:

No mud, no lotus.

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