Those of you who know my story know that I was born on a fault line of trauma, sudden death, mental health and folks swirling around me who drown their sorrows in alcohol.
My introduction to suicide was jarring! Here I was a chubby, freckle-faced third grader trying ever so hard to hide on the school playground by myself, playing hopscotch, when red haired know it all Ruthie Ann hopped over and broke my superpower reverie. I was at that moment mourning my father Sydney Sam Wallach who had just died. At least that’s what they said as I had no visible proof, no funeral, no body, just whiskey sours being poured. If asked, I might not be brave enough to share for fear of being told you are a “stupid girl”. Yet I knew in my heart my dad was “Superman” and that he was taken out by Kryptonite as he was in a heroic fight to set himself free. I however just preferred to keep that secret to myself until of course Ruthie Ann appeared.
She was dressed in gingham and was a bossy know-it-all, the kind of person who grows up to be the tight-ass town gossip who talks trash if you don’t do what she wants. Anyhow with her chest puffed out, she informs me as if she is deliberately delivering the state of the Union address, “I know how your father died.” I sheepishly look out and with inquiring eyes asked, “how would you know?” And without a hint of emotion, Ruthie Anne proclaimed, “your father hung himself with a tie.”
The picture of my father dangling with a one of a kind fancy fine tie from the haberdashery became emblazoned on my forehead the same way a holocaust victim’s arm was tattooed.
Nobody knew what to do with me. I saw spots at night, was terrified to go to sleep in the apt we lived in, did not want to look at the shower, as I saw ties undulating before me and to top if off, no one wanted to talk to me.
Luckily it was decided by the powers that be that I would be sent away to Camp Wood Echo, so I did not have to be present for all the endless confusion.
My sweet aunt Eleanor whose hair was shiny and silver lent my mother $500 and off I went to the hills of Pennsylvania where I learned to make hospital corners on my bed, paddle a canoe, saddle a horse, and sing songs. I learned how to shoot a rifle and pretend to brush teeth and SMILE WIDE while shooting a bow or arrow .
Now I can’t tell you exactly what my fascination was with archery, I can only speculate. Maybe I was fascinated by the fact you were supposed to pretend you were brushing your teeth while you pulled the bow back with one eye closed and aimed and let go of the arrow and watched it sail at lighting speeds of joy as it hit the target.
Or was it that I imagined I was powerful and accomplished while doing the activity or that I experienced mastery doing something I have never done before or that bow and arrow provided a positive experience in the midst of deep sorrow?
What I do know is the positive experience of shooting a bow and arrow at a target has stayed with me long after I was a camper. The ecstasy of the moment where you carefully align your arrow on your bow, adjust your stance, close one eye, pull the bow back with a determined eye, stay strong and let go and watch it fly is exhilarating. I feel like the world is (and most of all I am) better and okay, as in that moment I believe I can do almost anything. My heart’s a flutter and in that moment between loading, locking, aiming and shooting, the world is just me, my bow and the target. Upon hitting the target there is jubilation.
The question I ponder is what part of my brain stored this wonderful event, this “god shot”, that I learned at age 8 to allow me to experience the same joy at age 66 on a cold snowy mountain in Bhutan and at age 76 on my arrival to the Golden Door, to hit yet another bullseye and to experience the same enthusiasm and joy.
Curious I sought to explore the important role of resilience and positive memories.
The following is what I learned:
Our memories are not rational they are closely tied to our emotions that we felt at the time of the memory. Emotions make our emotions powerful and salient; they make the experience of recall human.
When you think of memories that elicit powerful emotional responses, you are most likely to find the most powerful emotions are positive. According to researchers, this phenomenon is called “fading affect bias” which refers to our tendency to forget negative emotions faster than positive ones. Research on this phenomenon is not new. The first studies were completed as far back as the 1930s, but it was only recently that any cross-cultural research was carried out.
Succinctly positive emotions build resilience (the emotional resources needed for coping). They broaden out awareness by shaking up our reality, letting us see more options for problem solving and feeling good. Studies have demonstrated that people feel and do their best when they have at least three times as many positive emotions than negative emotions. For me the power of archery gave me the ability to adapt to a most stressful situation i.e., the death of my father along with family confusion. The memory of hitting a bullseye, controlling my destiny, allowed me to bounce forward with focus, interest, hope, joy and optimism.
However, building resilience in the workplace is not just about focusing on positive emotional memories. Building resilience is about understanding how we recall our emotions and what impact they have on our perception of ongoing events. It is about learning to recognize the bias in your emotions and feelings that helps you understand and cope with difficult situations.
Understanding your emotions and how your memories make you feel is all part of the process of developing superior Emotional Intelligence and resilience.
Start developing your resilience today with these simple tips:
- Take time each day to focus on your emotions. What are you feeling? Consider how the emotional memories that you used that day affect the way you feel and how they are affecting your view of the world, as well as your actions.
- When people are recalling events, focus on their feelings and emotions, are they positive or negative, and how do their emotions subsequently affect your thoughts and behaviour?
- Be honest with yourself about what you can or can’t do. Focus on your strengths and derive your self-confidence from them. Admit that you can’t do everything and acknowledge those who can do what you can’t.
The importance of understanding resilience in work can’t be underestimated. With these 3 tips, you can survive and even thrive in trying times.
The last part of this article was based on a study by Ritchie, T.D., Batteson, T.J., Bohn, A., Crawford, M.T., Ferguson, G.V., Schrauf, R.W., Vogl, R.J., & Walker, W.R. (2014). A pancultural perspective on the fading affect bias in autobiographical memory. Memory. PMID: 24524