ECOPSYCHOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY
RESILIENCE AND HARDINESS
APPLICATIONS OF ECOTHERAPY AND RITES OF PASSAGE
Published in CIRCLES ON THE MOUNTAIN, Winter 2009, Issue 15
A couple of winters ago, my home had the most continuous days of snow on the ground in decades, and blizzards had shut down the Denver airport for days, sending shockwaves throughout the holiday travel season. In a way, it felt right for a Colorado winter. At the same time, however, California oranges were freezing, southeast Texas was bracing for a crippling ice-storm, and Washington, DC’s cherry trees were blooming in January. It is clear that global warming is shifting our world. No one knows exactly what is on the horizon, but it seems clear that whatever happens, the weather will be less predictable and more extreme. Floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires, higher high temperatures, and probably lower lows – all are likely to come in greater abundance than we have ever known. What are we to do?
While I hold this question, I am remembering a teenager in our community who committed suicide a short time ago. Although they were not close friends, my son knew Bryant from school, and we both went to his memorial service. I went to support my son as well as to support a grieving family I had never met. I went because all the young people there deserved to be supported, especially at such a time. I went to celebrate the young people, including this young man. The details are his own, but the general story of Bryant’s suicide is that a blizzard of extreme circumstances came together all at once, and he ran out of coping skills. As we sat in the church, the wind raged outside, sometimes drowning out the speakers and threatening to lift the very roof off the church. I felt us in the calm of the sanctuary and trusted that Bryant was in the calm of his own sanctuary now. I don’t know what would have made a difference for him, but for sure, the young people in that church and their peers everywhere are in need as they try to make their way to adulthood in a world less predictable and more extreme.
Adolescence has always been a time of less predictability and more extremes internally. What happens when the Earth, itself, is no longer a stable, predictable ground? What can we offer young people to help navigate both the changes of adolescence and the changes in the Earth’s climate?
I believe there are two kinds of answers: outer and inner. In addition to slowing climate change and developing new means for meeting our material needs, we also need to develop our inner resources. One of these is resilience, the capacity to respond to difficulty, even catastrophe, with optimism and maturity. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from obstacles or failures and to engage life’s challenges more fully. Resilient people come through difficulties more mature and more fully human. Resilience is one of the key capacities we will need to deal with increasing unpredictability and extremes – in the environment, our communities, our homes, and our own souls. More resilient young people will grow from attending their friends’ memorial services; those who are less resilient will close down, bitter, brittle, and scared.
The focus on resilience in children’s mental health began in earnest in the 1980s. It came as a shift from pathology-oriented models replete with risk factors to models which identified positive factors which allow children to mature from difficult situations into healthy, growing, fulfilled adults. More recently, the related concept of emotional intelligence has been recognized as central in life success and mental health. Some of the factors in the resilient child are social competence or social intelligence, good problem-solving skills with a healthy blend of creativity and perseverance, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and future. Other protective factors stem from the family (e.g., caring, support, and high expectations), and the community (e.g., the opportunity and encouragement to participate in the life of the community). The body of research on resilience and emotional intelligence is now very strong, and it continues to expand.
A parallel body of psychological research confirms and expands these ideas. You probably remember the classic research on life change stress and health. Those with a high degree of stress from life changes (the death of a loved one, a new job, or a move to a different house, for example) are significantly more likely to experience a health problem than those with fewer life changes. Those in the highest category of life change had an 80 percent chance of getting seriously ill or having a serious accident in the following year. But, a few researchers asked, what about the other 20 percent, those who are doing well in the face of life stress? What about those who were living life fully and thriving, even in the face of high stress?
Looking more deeply at this minority revealed a consistent pattern of three related attitudes: control, challenge, and commitment. The “thrivers” felt more in control – if not in control of circumstances, at least in control of their response to circumstances, they saw challenge as an opportunity to grow rather than a danger to be avoided, and they expressed a commitment to some larger cause beyond themselves. The researchers summarized these attitudes under the general term, “hardiness.” Given that adolescence and early adulthood is, by definition, a time of high life change and stress, hardiness, as well as a sense of resilience, should support young people. The important thing is that hardiness and resilience are attitudes we can promote.
Our work with young people in the context of wilderness rites of passage, vision fasts, ecotherapy, and wilderness therapy has shown us some ways of doing this. Meaningful challenges in the right degree to promote experiences of success, a chance to speak from one’s heart without shame, permission to fail along with encouragement to try again, recognition of the power of living life in one’s own way rather than from others’ demands, direct contact with nature, and the experience of intentionally stepping outside our familiar selves – these promote resilience, a robust and realistic sense of control, appreciation for challenge, and deeper commitment. These are central and abundant in our wilderness-based work.
We all need these factors as we respond to global climate change. We all need them to navigate the unpredictability and extremes of life transitions. The young people need them in spades. Resilience and hardiness are core to a sanctuary against the harsh winds of unpredictable change and a supportive ground in the face of extreme conditions.
Return to TOP OF PAGE