In Seven Dials there’s a sign you might miss. Between the first floor windows above a shop in Earlham Street, you’ll find the red, white and blue, but slightly battered, board for F. W. Collins. “Who was he?” you might ask. Well, the sign also let’s you know his claim to fame: “Elastic Glue Manufacturer (Sole Inventor 1857)”. It’s hard to read that and not think there’s a story worth telling.
Apparently, the shop beneath was for generations a hardware shop run by a series of fathers and sons all named Fred Collins. Back in mid-Victorian London, one of them had the idea of mixing an adhesive that would stay flexible when set. They prepared it in the basement of the shop in huge cast iron cauldrons and sold batches to fix saddles and problem horse shoes. The innovation allowed the leather of the saddle or the iron of the horseshoe to hold fast, but to accommodate the movement necessary for their use. In short, Fred Collins’ Elastic Glue ensured any such repairs were effective and resilient.
Today, we talk a lot about resilience — the ability to cope and withstand what’s thrown at us in both our personal and professional lives. The nurturing of resilience is seen as a good thing, an important attribute to acquire and develop and nothing short of a modern-day survival tool. But what does it entail? Like everything else to do with people, it’s hard to imagine that any single answer to that question would apply to everyone. But, if there is some common ground in it all, it might be the ability to bend in the wind, but still hold fast.
The young sapling needs a flexible trunk to take the force of the autumn gusts, but it also needs roots to anchor it to the earth. Only then can it grow, and in time, after a long apprenticeship learning to deal with the wind, can it acquire the heft to push back with equal force.
In the same way, we need to be flexible enough to bend and accommodate the adverse forces put upon us. But we also need to be able to spring back and hold our position when those forces abate. Just like the tree we need roots to hold us to our course. There might seem to be a paradox in there. How can we stay in one place and at the same time be expected to move? Resilience requires resolution for we need to know what we are standing for. But it also requires the ability to absorb the blows of misfortune and adversity. Only by yielding to the wind does the young tree save itself from snapping, and only by accommodating might we remain unbroken. But bending does not mean we have to shift. Resilience is not about running away, but rather about standing our ground, while forces that might break us are used to strengthen our base.
So much for metaphor, but when we are tired and vulnerable to insult, the last thing we might be able to do is bend. That’s where the nurturing of resilience alluded to above comes in. But, it does prompt the question: can resilience really be taught? Or are we merely at the mercy of our DNA, hardwired by our genes to be pessimists or optimists, worriers, victimised or down-trodden, or those who take it all in their stride and emerge on the other side of adversity walking even taller and straighter than before? Many psychologists contend that while some may be naturally resilient, many are not, but they can learn how to be. However, those same psychologists disagree on quite what is meant by resilience, so understandably there are different views on what we might focus on to achieve it. That said, there is a lot of common ground between the theories and here are five points you might want to consider.
1. Be objective
There is a bigger picture in life, which may be difficult to see, especially when we’re standing in a hole, weighed down by what has been piled on our shoulders. But, remember it’s not all about you — in fact it’s hardly ever about you. Things happen, but the universe wasn’t setting out specifically to spoil your day. It’s easy for the pessimist in all of us to view adversity as inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be seen as personal. Standing back and viewing the stresses in life — whether they be the impact of the one-off catastrophe or the collective erosive power of day-to-day inconvenience — as having the potential to teach us something can be empowering. No matter how dark an experience may seem, there is usually something to be learned from it. That, of course, is easy to say with hindsight, but much harder to acknowledge in the midst of the night.
2. Be grateful
Kindnesses received and given are perhaps the most underestimated drivers of resilience. Connecting with other people and sharing your gratitude for what you have and what you are able to give can re-centre your view of it all. Even stealing a moment privately to take stock of your own resources serves to offset any disappointment for all those things you don’t possess.
3. Acknowledge change
We live in flux, where the world and everything in it, including ourselves, grows, flourishes and dies. We need to find the flexibility of mind to accommodate that reality. As we age, some of our goals need to be realigned; as we acquire new responsibilities, some dreams need to be re-imagined. Sometimes it’s about making them smaller, but it might also be about making them bigger. This is not a failure in ourselves or a cause for distress, but an opportunity to keep our aspirations up-to-date and relevant.
4. Stay healthy
The physical resilience that comes with a good diet, ideal body weight, physical exercise and adequate sleep helps a lot with its psychological counterpart.
And maybe all this advice should should begin with a realisation that life is really rather ridiculous. This recognition comes much more easily with advancing years. Everything seems so serious in our youth and it is only with the passing years that we can muster the perspective to see that almost everything we choose to worry about not only doesn’t matter but is often laughable. A sense of humour is one of the strongest weapons against despair, and those who can laugh first and foremost at themselves and then at the situations they find themselves in are much more likely to come out the other side.
It is impossible to live a life free of adversity, large or small. The difference we can make is how we deal with it. Do we bend in that wind and grow stronger or do we break under the strain? Or do we hold fast, but stay flexible — just like old Mr Collins’ elastic glue.
© Allan Gaw 2018
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Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research
What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?
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