Nephew: I disagree with you.
Uncle: What? Why? I haven’t said anything! You just got here!
Nephew: You said we need to develop the feeling that whatever happens, we will handle it. That’s rubbish. Our neighbour, Mr Flan, was super tough. He could handle anything that came his way. But he killed himself.
Uncle: Don’t confuse resilience with toughness, or stoicism.
Uncle: A resilient person might endure hardship, but will recover. That’s what resilience means: having the capacity to recover from hardship. Resilient people might express their pain by talking about it, or they might cry and express so much emotion that it scares the pants off the rest of us. Whichever way they express it, they recover.
Nephew: Right . . .?
Uncle: A stoic person can endure hardship without expressing their pain. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can recover. It doesn’t mean they are resilient.
Nephew: So okay, we want to be stoic and resilient?
Uncle: We want resilience. And with resilience, comes stoicism.
Nephew: Now you’re losing me.
Uncle: A man might be stoic his entire life. He might endure hardship and worry, day after day, while desperately hiding his pain, believing that if he were to reveal his suffering he would be seen as weak and unworthy, and would be letting himself down, his family down, and his manhood down. And, in that ‘weakness’ he would feel shame so damning, so overwhelming, it would split his world apart.
Nephew: Have you swallowed a poetry book?
Uncle: At least, that’s how it feels to him. That’s the threat. And so he continues to conceal his pain, day after day, until finally, mercifully, he dies of natural causes. ‘He was a tough man,’ his friends might say. ‘A hard worker. Never complained. There aren’t many men like him left.’
Nephew: I’ve heard that said.
Uncle: Or, he doesn’t die. Instead, he cracks. He suffers a breakdown no one sees coming and does something awful. ‘What happened?’ they ask. ‘He seemed to be coping. Who would have thought?’
Nephew: I’ve heard of that happening too.
Uncle: Or, wonderfully, he seeks help and gets it. As a result, he not only gets through the pain, he gets to keep his stoicism. However, this time his stoicism comes not from his ability to hide his pain, but from his ability to deal with it.
Nephew: Good on him. What are you saying?
Uncle: Do I have to spell it out? Were you even listening?
Nephew: You’re saying it’s no use just being able to hide our pain, we need to be able to cope with our pain, even if that means bursting into tears.
Uncle: I’m sort of saying that, yes. Stoicism is good to have; we don’t want to burst into tears in every awkward circumstance. But if we develop resilience – the feeling that whatever happens we will handle it – we tend to develop stoicism as well.
Uncle: Knowing we will recover from the pain makes that pain easier to bear. That knowledge makes us stoic.
Nephew: So a parent aiming to make their child stoic should instead aim to make their child resilient?
Uncle: Yes, because when the child becomes resilient, it becomes stoic.
Nephew: You’re still losing me.
Uncle: When we cry it’s as though we dissemble, and when we assemble again we are a little more solid than we were before. When a child is allowed to express their suffering, with the support of those around them, they come to realise that the suffering passes and that they have handled it. And once you discover you that, it’s easier to be stoic.
Nephew: What do some parents do?
Uncle: Some parents tell their children to not cry because they want their child to become tough. They want their child to be able to bluff the bullies, and show strength instead of weakness. That’s understandable. However, they are confusing resilience with stoicism.
Nephew: So what should a parent say to a crying child?
Uncle: I don’t know. But telling it to stop crying isn’t going to help.
Nephew: You don’t know, do you?
Uncle: They could try, ‘Do you feel frightened because the dog is barking? Is that possible?’ ‘Do you feel sad because you are missing your sister? Is that possible?’ ‘Do you feel angry because you believe we should give you the lolly? Is that possible?’ That way, the child learns to label their emotion. They are then on the way to learning how to deal with it. That’s when resilience comes.
Nephew: I know a woman who cries freely when she watches a movie or reads a book. I used to think she was fragile, but she seems to handle life well.
Uncle: There you go.
Nephew: I also know an adult who cries at any little thing.
Uncle: Some people cry because they are not coping; others cry because it provides the necessary release for them. In some tribes in Papua New Guinea the men cry freely, yet there is no suggestion they aren’t resilient.
Nephew: So you’re saying if I feel like crying, I might as well? Don’t hold back?
Uncle: Yes, if you’re alone, or in a supportive environment.
‘It can be a great release to cry. If you stay quietly present, your tears will run their course. Do not fear. They never go on forever. Tears wash the soul. They cleanse the heart. Unshed tears can hurt.’
Susan Halpern, author.
‘Sometimes the most empowering thing you can do is get real, get ugly, express your emotions and bawl your eyes out.’
Nephew: What if I want to cry but can’t?
Uncle: At least make the choice to cry. Give yourself permission to cry. That’s a start. And give yourself permission to suffer. Even that can provide relief.
Nephew: You’re weird.
Uncle: By the way, a person resilient in one area of their life may not be resilient in another.
Nephew: Like, someone physically resilient might not be emotionally resilient?
Uncle: Or vice versa.
Nephew: So where does this get us?
Uncle: I have no idea. You started this conversation by having the temerity to disagree with me.
Nephew: Did I? What did I say?
Uncle: (Sigh) The point is, don’t aim to simply ‘tough it out’. Instead, focus on developing the ability to feel you can handle whatever happens.
Nephew: You keep saying that. How do we actually do it?
Uncle. One good start is to be aware of what we are feeling.
Nephew: I’m feeling hungry right now. How does that help?