By Shawn Christopher Shea, M.D.
“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the
recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.”
Theodore Isaac Rubin
Resiliency. It is an appealing word, quite popular right now. But the question remains where does one find the promise behind the word in the immensely difficult times we are all facing. The concept of the need for resiliency is so ubiquitous– our shelves at Barnes and Noble are teeming with books on the subject and our television pop psychology shows and websites literally bombard us with tips on “how to achieve it”– that the concept of resiliency is bordering on being "old hat".
Therein lies both a problem and a paradox. Insights that become "old hat" run the risk of being relegated to the hatrack in the back of the hallway closet. In contrast, true life-transforming insight, if it’s worth its salt, will prove its merit by being consciously remembered and consciously employed– routinely. A brilliant truth becomes brilliant only if it burns itself into the everyday habit of the soul. True insight provides practical tools for answering tough questions such as, “How exactly does one gain resiliency and how can these gains help us to prevent suicide in those we love such as college students, our military, and our family members?” We also want our understanding of resiliency to help us to recover from our own major losses such as financial failure, unemployment, or the death of our loved ones whether by car wrecks, cancer, or suicide.
There are many pathways to building resiliency and to suicide prevention itself. In this article we only have time to focus upon one, but I think it is a pathway sometimes overlooked. I do not pretend it is a new pathway– indeed it is one of the oldest of all pathways. The task of the philosopher is to take what is old and present it in a way that appeals to what is new, in this case– younger generations. Interestingly when I provide lectures to college students, I find that today’s students are very open to the pathway we are about to explore in this essay. Indeed, I sense a hunger for it, for they have grown up in an almost titanic age of narcissism.
But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, I haven’t even said of what this specific pathway to resiliency consists. I have not done so because I believe it may be best not to tell what it is but to let someone show us what it is. Our guide will be an unexpected source– a small businessman, strapped by his own financial difficulties, in a small town in New England.
Years ago, I was one of those delightfully deluded enthusiasts involved in football card collecting. Convinced that I had found not only a fun hobby but a sound investment, a sure way to pay for many a college education, I proved to be right on only one count. I had great fun.
I used to shop at a tiny "hole-in-the wall" card shop tucked away beneath a dingy stairwell on Main Street in Keene, New Hampshire. The owner, Don, was a stout no-nonsense but down-to-earth man who always reminded me a bit of ole Fezziwig the warm hearted boss from Scrooge's past in The Christmas Carol.
Don had collected cards as a child, and now, as a man, he sold them. But Don was not just a peddler of cards. He was a merchant in rare treasures. He bartered and traded in forgotten memories and boyhood dreams. Of course, Don was no ones fool, he also wanted to make money as well as the next guy.
One late winter evening, as Christmas waited nearby and a light snow fell upon the streetlights and parked cars on Main Street, I found myself standing at Don's sportscard counter beside a small boy of about seven. He was not just a small boy. He was a small boy with the saucer eyes of wonderment, for he had spotted a "Mickey Mantle". It wasn't a great "Mickey Mantle" but it certainly was worth a good fifty bucks, well beyond the boy's means. Don saw the boy's fascination. The two bantered back and forth.
The boy asked, "How much is the card, Mister?" Don gave the marked price and the boy just nodded, the nod we all have sported ourselves of "That's out of my league, but I can dream".
They bantered a few more moments, and then the boy began browsing on the other side of the shop. About ten minutes later the boy headed for the door. Don called out, "Hey kid."
"Come over here a second."
I couldn't fully hear the important business negotiations that then undoubtedly unfolded in the shadows of that shop, but I did hear Don say, "Well, I probably shouldn't do it, but you drive a hard bargain kid– five bucks it is, not a penny less."
Here is a small-town shopkeeper, struggling with his own finances, providing what to some would appear to be a small act of kindness but which, in truth, will prove to be a large and luminous memory for a small boy of seven. And here is something else worth noting, I never forgot the interaction. I never said anything to Don, but I always shopped at his store for years even when "better stocked" card shops with shiny cases but no souls popped up like mushrooms all over the town. Without any intention of doing so, Don’s kindness towards others resulted in kindness towards himself. Herein lies an important mystery.
As noted earlier, we live in age where there is much talk of resiliency and spirituality. Much of the talk focuses upon the inward paths to resiliency such as yoga, meditation, prayer, and building psychological toughness. All of these pathways are indeed useful and wonderful additions to our contemporary search for resiliency and meaning.
But over the years I have come to a realization. In the last analysis, resiliency and spiritual growth may be less a searching inwards, than they are a reaching outwards. It is compassion, not introspection, that more surely leads to self growth. The inward paths to resiliency and spiritual growth can often lead to surprisingly unimportant places unless one travels the outward path as well. And, if one has to choose which path to spend more time upon, when seeking for resiliency, I would choose the journey outwards anytime.
One of the most resilient people of our era– Mother Theresa– was resilient not because she meditated 14 hours a day, but because she tended to the poor 14 hours a day. It is not that we have to choose one path over the other. Both are valuable in appropriate measures. It is merely that it is important to understand the extraordinary power of the path outwards to provide growth inwards– to create resilience through mission.
As with our shopkeeper, Don, kindness towards others is often the flip side of a coin, whose other side is the development of a special type of resiliency, that allows one to move through pain towards hope and healing. All of us who have lost someone to suicide, whether it be a family member, a colleague or client, understand the healing power of mission, for many of us have dedicated ourselves to the mission of suicide prevention. The American anthropologist Ruth Benedict summed this healing power well, “The happiest excitement in life is to be convinced that one is fighting for all one is worth on behalf of some clearly seen and deeply felt good.” We do not do acts of kindness to receive resiliency back, but whether we want them to or not, acts of kindness create resiliency in those who perform them. It is a wonderful, almost magical, positive feedback loop.
It is also one of the pathways to preventing suicide. As we raise our children, educate them in our schools, and mentor them in their colleges and jobs, this message of the importance of mission and its innate role in creating resiliency is, in my opinion, one of the cornerstones of suicide prevention. Adolescents and young adults who understand the intimate relationship between compassion and resilience, are much more likely to reach out to those who have become overwhelmed by psychological pain, whether from depression or life circumstances, perhaps reaching someone who may be contemplating suicide whether in a college dorm or in an army barracks.
Moreover, from their own acts of kindness and their sense of mission, they may have developed a more deeply rooted resilience that may help them to more effectively face the disappointments and stresses that life invariably brings to all of us. Who knows? Perhaps their own resiliency, first rooted in their personal sense of compassion, will serve as a protective shield against the development of their own suicidal thoughts. I remain convinced that one of the next steps forward in the field of suicide prevention is to not only help people who have developed suicidal ideation transform it, but to help people not to develop suicidal ideation in the first place.
It is a win/win situation, this gift from our shopkeeper. It sheds insight upon our pivotal practical question, “How exactly does one gain resiliency and how can these gains help to prevent suicide?” It points a brilliant light towards new directions in suicide prevention. It also fleshes out, in the real world, the gentle truth of what Theodore Isaac Rubin said at the beginning of our essay, “Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.” Our shopkeeper knew it, and, now, so do we.
The above essay is adapted from Dr. Shea’s book on resiliency, Happiness Is.: Unexpected Answers to Practical Questions in Curious Times by Health Communications, Inc. To read a free sample chapter please join Dr. Shea at www.sheahappinessis.com. To learn more about his keynotes on resiliency for college students and the general public, as well as his trainings on suicide prevention for mental health professionals, please join him at the website for the Training Institute for Suicide Assessment and Clinical Interviewing (TISA), of which he is the Director, at www.suicideassessment.com.