In my last post, I talked about the third act in life, that time generally considered as retirement. Resilience was cited as one of the four qualities that centenarians (people who are over the age of 100) share, according to Dr. Mario Martinez in his book, The MindBody Code. The others are creativity, flexibility, and perseverance.
Resilience is most often defined as how we bounce back from change and challenges (Angela Maiers). Much has been written about teaching children this important skill. To make it in this world, they need to learn early on how to handle the ups and downs of life. They need to learn how to respond to change, challenges, and even failure.
Maria Konnikova writes about the secret formula of resilience in The New Yorker. In studies of children who faced adverse circumstances and remained resilient, researchers found that luck plays a part, usually in the form of a strong bond with a supportive caregiver or mentor figure. Other important elements are more psychological; these children have a strong sense of independence, are seekers of new experiences, and have a positive social orientation.
Most importantly, they strongly believe that they have some control over their fate, despite their circumstances.
Even if we do learn to be resilient when we’re young, the skills can be worn down as we age through the trials and tribulations of life. I would argue that retraining this capacity is just as important in our later years, especially in our third act.
As I look around at friends and family, I see many dealing with incredible challenges – a sudden job loss or illness for themselves or someone they love, not being prepared for the financial realities of retirement, or dealing with the care of aging parents.
How do we maintain resilience in the face of these challenges?
Centenarians are not just luckier than most. While luck does play a part in their long years, their capacity for resilience plays a bigger one. They’ve shifted from focusing on what’s happening “to” them to figuring out how to deal with what’s happening now – definitely a contemplative mindset.
They’ve learned how to accept whatever comes with compassion, grace, and even humour.
Perception also plays a part, for example, whether a situation is seen as traumatic or an opportunity to learn and grow. Of course, everyone has a breaking point. No matter how resilient we are, we can only take so much. But, we can start with the smaller challenges and reframe them.
Beyond dealing with challenges, Maiers expands the definition of resilience by saying that it is also about how we “bounce forward” – “going beyond what the naysayers say, and saying back: I matter.”
While most of us think that we lose value and the ability to do things and make a difference as we age, centenarians think the opposite. They believe that they still matter, they open their minds to what’s possible, and they pursue their passions, no matter what their age. Martinez cites several examples of centenarians who still planted gardens, remarried, volunteered for organizations, pursued art, etc.
Centenarians strongly defy cultural expectations around aging. They don’t let anyone else’s expectations determine what they do or don’t do. Being resilient in the third act means to actively seek novelty, to continue to learn and grow and pursue your passions.
An Example of Resilience
One of my heroes in the environmental movement was the priest, Thomas Berry. When I went back to school (at the age of 50) to study earth literacy, we were assigned to read some of Berry’s books.
For much of his life, Berry was a scholarly priest, director of The Riverdale Center for Religious Research and President of The American Teilhard Association. What I didn’t find out until much later was that Berry didn’t write his first book on the environment until he was 84 years old! That inspires me.
Author Bill Plotkin (Nature and the Human Soul) cites Berry as an example of true elderhood – “graceful, wise, serene, wild, and generous.”
Berry lived to the ripe age of 95 and Plotkin remembers visiting him when he was 91. Berry had suffered a stroke two years earlier. He used a cane and it was painful for him to walk, yet he seemed happy and welcomed Plotkin with warmth and graciousness. Berry’s continued passion for his work, his sense of mystery, and the wildness of his thinking surprised and delighted Plotkin.
How to be Resilient in your Third Act
2. Question the cultural expectations you have around aging, either self-imposed or imposed by others. If you think you can’t do something because of your age, ask yourself why not? Seek novelty. Bounce forward. It’s never too late to do most anything.
3. When challenges arise, shift the focus from what’s happening to how you will deal with it. Don’t be afraid to ask for support.
4. Remind yourself of the times you’ve been resilient in the past or look to someone who’s experienced similar challenges and bounced back. They can be a model of resilience for you.
Who has inspired you in their resilience?
Resiliency Matters by Angela Maiers on Medium
How People Learn to Become Resilient by Maria Konnikoava (The New Yorker)
Bruce Lee on Resilience via Brain Pickings