I recently attended a seminar for church workers on developing personal resilience. As an icebreaker we were offered three objects: a piece of wood, a rubber bendy ruler, and a piece of corrugated cardboard. We were then invited to comment on the resilience of each.
When I first set out in full-time ministry, I used to worry that I needed to toughen up. When I shared this with a senior colleague, she told me, with great authority, “You must never lose your softness.” Stephen Cottrell, in his leadership book, Hit the Ground Kneeling, talks about the reality of softness: “The world says you need a thick skin. But most of us are born with hearts that break.”
Developing our resilience doesn’t mean we need to grow a thicker skin or an unbreakable heart. Of the three materials we were presented with in that seminar, the piece of wood was the toughest, yet the least resilient. Under stress it would become brittle and then break. The damage would be irreparable. Likewise, when we pretend to be tough perhaps we eventually find ourselves brittle or broken.
When we’re aware of our thin skin and breakable hearts, another temptation is to run from pain. We become like the corrugated cardboard: too fragile and easily crushed. But pain will find us, sooner or later.
We can never overcome pain by escaping or toughening up. The only way to be transformed by difficult times is to go through them, and let them teach us resilience. To become resilient is to become like the bendy ruler. Under stress it will bend, twist – perhaps even be tied in a knot. But it will always bounce back to its original shape.
Resilience is about how we recover, not whether we suffer. Along with a good regime of self-care – to eat well, sleep well, talk, rest, laugh, cry and pray – how does the Christian story help us learn to bounce back?
First, it tells us that our identity is in Christ. God so loved us that He took on our humanness for Himself. However often life tries to break our hearts, the story of Jesus tells us that we belong to God and He holds us close.
Second, it encourages us to stay focused. Our setbacks often teach us the most about ourselves and God. Tough times become vocational. When things are challenging, hold on to what you know about who God is, and about who you are becoming, and get ready to grow!
Third, it puts things in perspective. Asking yourself: “Will this matter in a year? Or five?” might help you to bounce back. But if it doesn’t, we know that pain is not the end of the story. These famous words from Julian of Norwich can become a prayer of hopeful resilience: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” God’s story is about eternal well-ness, and we are invited to be part of that – eternally!
Thin skin and breakable hearts are what make us human. Never lose your softness, but do learn to bounce!