What is resilience? Is it always a good thing? And what in the world do tulips have to do with resilience?
I always loved the splash of color tulips give to spring. This year, however, my appreciation has deepened to admiration. My first-year tulips have provided me with vivid object lessons of beauty in resilience, showing beauty after brokenness and strength in hardship.
Come along, and I’ll show you.
Resilience: Beauty after Brokenness
Early this spring, I watched eagerly for the emergence of the new tulips I just planted this past fall.
They had been a birthday present from my mother shortly after losing our daughter. There is something about planting flower bulbs in the fall, and waiting in hope for their blooms after the winter, that is so healing after loss. After losing our son a couple years earlier, my cousin sent me a giant box of daffodils and grape hyacinths for this purpose, and they have been the highlight of my spring ever since.
After waiting for weeks, the first sight of my tulips this March was of sprouts nibbled to ugly stumps. I had forgotten deer liked tulips! So in a meager attempt at saving them, I settled a tomato cage over each cluster. The deer could still get to some of them, but they’d have to work a little harder.
A few weeks ago, I strolled by my new plantings. Joy at seeing the first bud turned almost instantly to annoyance—no, anger—at the deer. They had bitten off the top of the first bud! Now I might not get tulips after all.
I was mad that the deer found a way around my tomato cage to ruin my very first tulip bud. A closer inspection, however, provided me a precious gift I will never forget.
The leathery, still-green tulip petals curled delicately inside the bud, like elegant scrolls surrounding the pistil and stamens. This hidden artistry reminded me of the paper quilling decorating my parents’ framed marriage certificate. I had no idea tulips possessed this kind of beauty on the inside! I stood in awe.
I would never have had this peek into hidden beauty if the tulip hadn’t been broken.
While the tulip’s hidden beauty was brought to light in brokenness, its beauty didn’t stop there. Tulip stems continue to grow even after being cut. (In cut flower arrangements, florists may have to take out the tulips the next day and trim them back down to size). Similarly, this tulip bud, bitten almost entirely in half, continued to grow.
Instead of being stunted, the thick green bud gradually thinned and turned into bright red petals just like the rest of the buds in that cluster. True, the petals were a little ragged and uneven, but they were no less brilliant. This tulip was resilient—blooming with determination and a rare kind of beauty even after being broken.
What about you and me?
- When we are broken, is beauty revealed in our character, or ugliness?
- Do we give up and shrivel up, or do we persist and bloom?
- When we have been hurt, do we appreciate the beauty that remains? Do we allow it to grow?
- Do we celebrate the beauty of others who have endured difficult things and emerged stronger?
Resilience: Strength in Hardship
In April, we had a cold snap with a heavy frost overnight. All my tulips, once strong and straight, were bowed down, their flowers flopped to the side like a bunch of rag dolls.
Disappointed, I thought my tulip season was cut short by the April frost. But as the sun came up and warmed the day, the tulips popped back into position, as sturdy and cheery as ever.
This happened not just once, but again the next morning, and yet again the following week. More tender flowers, like the magnolia, are ruined by freezing temperatures. Yet the tulip stems did not turn to mush, and neither did the petals turn brown. After each frost, the tulips bounced back like nothing had happened.
What about you and me?
It’s not always easy to bounce back that fast or that completely. Setbacks in daily life? Likely. But grieving a deep loss? Much more difficult. Hardships happen in life, and we need to allow grace for ourselves (and others) to heal, process, and gain courage. But in the long term, we don’t want hardships to utterly destroy us.
- When we experience frustrating setbacks, do we find something for which to thank God?
- If life is hard, do we still look for the beauty and good around us?
- Do we continue kindness to others even when we are hurting?
- Can we release to God what isn’t ours to keep or control anyway?
What is Resilience?
I’ve described the resilience of tulips and alluded to several applications. But what is resilience, and to what extent should we strive for it?
The Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers, a helpful resource published by the American Psychological Association, defines resilience as “the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.”
One writer, who experienced the unexpected death of her husband, calls resilience a “grief myth,”harmful to those who don’t want to rush through grief. (See Candyce Ossefort-Russell’s article.) She prefers the word “fortitude” so those grieving are not pressured to immediately bounce back to normal.
Though I don’t share Ossefort-Russell’s discomfort with “resilience,” I agree that we shouldn’t pressure people to act normal when they need time to grieve. Whatever word we use, kindness and grace are important.
So, back to the tulips: How do we imitate the tulip’s resilience?
Let’s consider some characteristics of people who show resilience.
Resilience is an Attitude
I think of a child’s response to challenging schoolwork. (As you may have seen for yourself, reactions at home are VERY different than they would be at school in front of peers). Whining, crying, falling down and kicking on the floor at the slightest difficulty reveal a belief that the task is impossible, a fear of failure, or simply a petulant dislike for the task. But a child’s willingness to take a breath, focus, and be patient with herself enables the assignment to be completed very well, eventually.
When a child has an “I can’t” attitude, the possible becomes truly impossible. But when she is feeling positive, she can get the assignment done in no time, and do a pretty good job!
For adults dealing with loss, grief, disappointment, or any type of setback—attitude is still everything. If we believe our loss or hardship has stolen everything from us, then we will remain empty. But if we recognize our loss or hardship as a difficulty (or series of difficulties) in the midst of a generally good life, we will have more hope.
I like Lucy Hone’s observation in her Ted Talk, The Three Secrets of Resilient People. This researcher describes her struggle to find hope after losing her daughter in a tragic accident. She discovered a commonality in those who show resilience in grief: “When the tough times come, they seem to know that suffering is part of every human existence. And knowing this stops you from feeling discriminated against when the tough times come.”
Dr. Kenneth J. Doka identified further characteristics in Building Resilience after Loss. He said that “resilient grievers” possess “a belief that something good can come from even the worst events.”
I strongly agree with both statements. These mindsets represent much of how I coped during our long processes of anticipating and grieving loss of our babies.
Resilience is a Choice
Resilience is a choice to pick up and keep going instead of falling on the floor.
- A choice to give up or “gird up”
- A choice to wallow in self-pity and misery, or to take a deep breath and choose joy
- A choice to ruminate on the pain, the loss, or the evil, or to notice the beauty and the good around us
- A choice to wait to be noticed or served, or to notice and serve others
- A choice to allow bitterness to take hold, or to live with gratitude
As Lucy Hone urged in her Ted Talk, “Choose life, not death. Don’t lose what you have to what you have lost.”
We Can Choose Our Attitudes
Attitude and choice are not separate. We can choose our mindset.
Consider this command from Scripture:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.Romans 12:2
I believe this “renewing” of our minds lends resilience in our troubles because it helps us see them from a higher perspective. (Explore this further in my post, Finding God’s Purposes in Suffering.)
“What if the goal is not to avoid suffering, but to look more like Jesus at any cost?” (BSF Lesson 27 Notes, Acts and Letters of the Apostles, page 1)
“Do you thank God for authoring your life story? How might God plan to use all your past experiences and present conditions for a future work?” (BSF Lesson 27 Notes, Acts and Letters of the Apostles, page 5)
As these questions challenged me to “test and approve what God’s will is,” I hope they are beneficial to you, as well.
Our attitudes and our choices make a huge difference in how circumstances affect us in the long run. We can choose to grow in resilience, or not. I don’t know about you, but I want to grow in beauty, not shrivel in bitterness.
Everyone experiences hardship and grief differently. Like one writer suggested, perhaps not everyone can, or should, try to bounce back as if nothing happened. Either way, I think we all can learn something from the tulip.
If our circumstances—or even other people—break us or set us back, we don’t have to be completely destroyed; we don’t have to be crippled forever by grief or hardship.
May the beauty hidden inside be revealed in a strength we didn’t know we had.
And may we continue to grow and blossom with brilliance, finding beauty in resilience.