Inability to Cope, Part 2

The first component of resilience that I actually seem to have is a moral compass.  In my child-world, the single worst thing I could do was lie to my parents.  Life would pass in a carefree breeze until, in a moment of laziness or poorly-planned insolence, I would tell an untruth.  Invariably, my mom or dad would discover my deviance and mete out punishment accordingly.


Jody’s front yard, early evening, c. 1980.  A group of neighborhood children engages in an intense game of tag.  Mom appears in the front doorway, looks through the group of approximately 25 children, and pinpoints Jody with laser efficiency.


Did you brush your teeth after supper?

Jody glances around, realizes she has been caught.  A hesitation, oh-so-slight but loaded with significance to an experienced parent.



Mom disappears into the house.  Jody, vaguely uneasy, turns in a sharp buttonhook-style pattern to avoid a slap on the back from “It.”  Mom reappears in the doorway.


Come here.  Now.

Jody freezes, seeming to hope that Mom cannot see her anywhere on the treeless lawn.  A second passes.  Her shoulders sag slightly and, as a netted fish being slowly towed toward a ship, trudges over to Mom, who she now notices is holding her toothbrush and indicating its lack of moisture.  Jody is whisked into the house where she is presumably presented with a list of chores including but not limited to: washing dishes, brushing carrots, cleaning the toilet, weeding, and taking out the garbage for the next ______ days/weeks.


This tiny excerpt from my childhood demonstrates several things, sadly not the least of which is that I was not the brightest star in the sky.  Later, I would learn to wet the toothbrush after supper (because that was so much easier than simply brushing my teeth), but this subterfuge never seemed to foil my mom either.  Over time, the realization that I would be caught in any and all attempts at deception caused me simply to stop lying.  The times I felt forced to lie later in life were not pretty for anyone involved and ruined many a surprise party and job opportunity.

What started out as a child’s terror at being caught in lies (and subsequently grounded without TV privileges) marinated in grandparental stories of what the devil would do to sinners and was bolstered by the folksy wisdom of Yoda and the righteousness of the Jedi.  Much later, I would become heady with the book-learning of Sociology and Native Studies 110 (THE PATRIARCHY/RACISM/HOMOPHOBIA/OTHERING/-ISMS!/INJUSTICE!).  I don’t know when exactly it happened, but the previously externally-imposed ideas of right and wrong had become internal and morphed into an ever-growing sense of how I need to behave in the world in order to get a good night’s sleep.

At this point I plead with you not to assume that my discussion about having a moral compass means I want you all to throw a party for me and my special awesomeness.  Knowing what I want to do is approximately 1% of my battle in trying to be a good person.  The other 99% is comprised mostly of failures and missteps and the odd moment of positive action.  Can I even pretend I have called out everyone who told a racist joke in my presence?  Has my language always been pristine?  Was I really too tired to ride my bike to work last Thursday?  Have images of my plastic Starbucks glass lodged inside a blue whale’s stomach always prevented me from having a green tea lemonade when my re-usable glass was at home?  The answers to these questions are: No, non, nyet, and nein.  The compass often points to true north while I hover somewhere around the SSE point.

Let’s get back to Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges again, where Southwick and Charney write, “In studies on personal values, researchers have. . . found that thinking about and affirming one’s values can diminish perceptions of threat, reduce defensive responses to threatening information, and decrease rumination after failure.  Focusing on personal values has even been found to buffer physiological and psychological responses during a challenging laboratory test (76).”

I certainly don’t feel as if my moral compass has buffered my stress, and I ruminate aplenty post-failure.  Does gut-wrenching guilt build resilience in me?  Doubtful.  I actually believe that knowing what I want to do and falling short is what makes life difficult for me.  Yet I also believe I will not be changing core beliefs anytime soon, so I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that the moral compass confers some strength in me so I can live to fight another day.Image