In retrospect, what I wrote was so naïve. This is my attempt to explain why and offer additional observations. But first, here’s the context.
On Nov. 7, 2020, a driver exited a parking lot without looking, and while crossing the sidewalk, hit my 7-year-old son, Vincent. He was riding his bicycle with his three siblings and my wife; they were on their way to their favorite ice cream shop after playing at a local park. Vincent died within minutes.
Describing the aftermath of Vincent’s death defies words, as the depths of grief that my family and I experienced at times seemed bottomless. The emotional and even physical pain has been and continues, on occasion, to be severe. I will carry this particular grief with me for the rest of my life. One doesn’t “get over” or “move on” from such an experience and loss.
Coincidentally, for the entirety of my career as a social scientist, I’ve been interested in how people make sense of and navigate adversity. In recent years, I’ve begun to characterize my interest in terms of exploring crucibles: those excruciating, unplanned, defining experiences that both clarify who we are and shape who we become. Some crucibles are at work, including exceedingly demanding tasks or situations. Some involve work but are crucibles of meaning and identity, including losing a job, changing careers, or coping with underemployment or unemployment. Personal crucibles surpass the workplace and include coping with health challenges or those of a loved one, navigating mental or physical disabilities, and, of course, death and dying. For those with children, parenting presents frequent crucibles that test one’s patience, understanding, and values.
Regardless of the form they take, the unfortunate truth is that the experience of being human includes crucibles. Worse still, crucibles involve suffering—physical, psychological, or both—and they are unavoidable. For some people, crucibles are devastating and leave a wake of pain, cynicism, and even a shorter life expectancy. But for others, crucibles—in spite of, or perhaps because of their pain—can lead to deep learning, focused purpose, and growth. The difference between those two outcomes of crucibles has to do with how we psychologically process what happened, how we understand situations with and through each other, and the lenses through which we view the world.
In addition to my scholarly pursuits, I am also no stranger to tough or unusual circumstances. Vincent’s death, to be sure, has been the most substantial crucible I’ve faced. But I’ve also served as an officer in the U.S. Navy since 2002, and across my service in both the active and reserve components, I’ve deployed to hostile areas and engaged in dangerous work at sea and on land. Vincent was actually born a few weeks after I arrived in Afghanistan, where I spent 2013 advising the Afghan National Police.
A few years after I returned from Afghanistan, I wrote a chapter on “psychological resilience” for publication in the Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology that appeared in print in 2017. It’s a relatively short chapter by academic standards—2,000 words—that summarizes what psychological resilience is, what factors tend to correlate with it, and associated implications. It’s the kind of chapter that someone who wanted a brief, evidence-based overview on the topic would likely find useful.
In the chapter, after offering a definition of the topic, I outlined the cognitive, affective (or emotional), and demographic and life experience factors that research suggests correlate with higher levels of psychological resilience. Those correlates include the idea of hardiness, which essentially is a mindset and focus on meaning and purpose. How people interpret or frame adverse events is also important, along with positive emotions and maintaining high-quality relationships. Childhood experiences and age also tend to matter somewhat regarding psychological resilience.
In early 2021, a few months after Vincent died, I revisited the chapter to see what I had written and to evaluate how it compares and contrasts with both my experiences and other relevant areas of social science. Although what I wrote didn’t include anything that was technically incorrect or contrary to science, it did fail to emphasize adequately a number of key points. Through the lens of my experience and other relevant scientific work, I outline those shortcomings below, with an emphasis on what I now have come to see as a few critical components of psychological resilience.
Resilience isn’t just emotionless coping or “bouncing back”
“Psychological resilience is a person’s capacity to maintain a relatively stable equilibrium in the face of adversity … [it] involves the tendency to react with relative stability when an unexpected negative event occurs.”
Knowing what I know now, those sentences from the chapter I wrote seem tremendously simplistic; specifically, one might interpret the idea of “relative stability” as negating the unavoidable gut-wrenching pain that the crucibles of life may foist upon us. Some may say that it equates psychological resilience with emotionless coping, stuffing one’s feelings into a mental box or attempting to cast them aside and move on. Although it’s plausible that people with a high level of psychological resilience may have a lower probability of long-term despair—or in the case of bereavement, what’s known as “complicated” grief—excessive emotional suppression does not appear to be the source of that resilience.
When navigating the crucibles of life, science illuminates how distracting oneself or ignoring the reality of what has happened or is happening is generally not a productive path forward. In fact, such a strategy can get in the way of what psychologists call “posttraumatic growth.” Simply put, posttraumatic growth is an alternative outcome to trauma, contrasted with posttraumatic stress disorder. It includes a reevaluation of priorities, learning, clarified meaning, a renewed sense of purpose, or some combination of these ultimately positive outcomes. But posttraumatic growth doesn’t seem to arise as an outcome of trying to bounce back quickly or maintaining a persistent stoicism in one’s emotions.
Psychological resilience—based upon science, which is highly congruent with my experiences—instead appears to arise from how we appraise our crucibles and integrate that appraisal into a new understanding of ourselves and our purpose on this planet with our fellow humans. The depths of emotion that I’ve experienced since Vincent died are like none that I thought were possible. Yet my journey since then is one that’s ultimately a story of hope—not because I bounced back from tragedy, but because I’m learning how the crucible of that tragedy can indeed forge learning, growth, and a renewal of one’s meaning and purpose.
At the same time, if I could snap my fingers and bring Vincent back, I’d do it in a millisecond.
Resilience is a team sport
Much of the research on psychological resilience has, unsurprisingly, come from the field of psychology. As such, one could argue that the focus on what psychological resilience is and its sources has focused more on what’s going on inside individual’s minds than on the broader social context of life. That’s not to say that psychologists have ignored the role of social interactions, but at least at the time that I wrote my chapter on the topic, the emphasis certainly skewed toward individual-level factors such as personality characteristics, cognitive processes, and demographic variables.
Immediately following Vincent’s death, people near and far responded in a way that was tremendously supportive. Even in our shock and grief, it was humbling to witness. Hundreds of people contacted us with their condolences, cooked meals arrived at our house for almost four months, and friends and strangers alike have participated in the annual Vincent William Baran Day of Service that we started in 2021.
Given the circumstances—the tragic death of a 7-year-old boy while on a bike ride in the middle of a small town—one could say that such a response from the community is understandable, maybe even predictable. And it does completely make sense to some extent; however, it is also entirely the case that hundreds of people actively made a choice to reach out and do something for us. It’s also a fact that the support we’ve received has been instrumental to our resilience.
I underestimated and failed to describe adequately the degree to which resilience is a team sport when I wrote my chapter on psychological resilience years earlier. I mentioned it in passing, but I focused much more on individual-level factors—following the prevailing focus within social science literature at the time.
The truth is that we are indispensable to each other as we navigate the trials of life. Military units with higher cohesion have better mental health outcomes for their members. Social support is also a key factor in supporting posttraumatic growth. The connections we foster and maintain with people around us matter for many reasons; one of those reasons is that they are critical in helping us make sense of and survive unexpected hardship.
Resilience relies on effective sensemaking
As I revisited my psychological resilience chapter, one word was noticeably absent: sensemaking. I did mention and briefly explain the importance of a related idea, appraisal strategies, which refers to the various ways in which people may reframe or otherwise interpret adversity. But I didn’t specifically integrate the idea of sensemaking into my overview, and because of its importance, that was a glaring omission.
Sensemaking describes how we come to understand and extract or assign meaning to the uncertainty and ambiguity of life. Specifically, it’s about grappling with those situations that fundamentally challenge our sense of what’s expected: a life-altering or terminal medical diagnosis, a painful relationship struggle with a spouse or partner, a crisis at work, the sudden death of a friend or family member, and myriad other circumstances that tax our ability to understand and cope effectively. We all engage in sensemaking, although often subconsciously, when facing the unexpected.
As it pertains to crucibles and psychological resilience, an important aspect of sensemaking involves what I’ve come to call “reckoning,” which comes after the initial shock of adversity. Reckoning for me involved staring straight into the abyss of what had happened, facing and evaluating the world around me, and taking stock of the resources I had to make sense and survive as I moved forward.
Regardless of the type of crucibles one encounters, my experience and social science suggest that “reckoning well” involves three related sets of principles: (1) facing the facts while continuing to sense new details, (2) grounding your response in your values, and (3) acknowledging pain and suffering while remaining open to relief, gratitude, joy, and even positive growth. This appears to be congruent with the path forward toward posttraumatic growth instead of posttraumatic stress.
Embedded within sensemaking is the idea that we retain some agency, some ability to choose, even within the most extreme situations. This idea is not new. We have the ability, within the worst of times, to have what Holocaust survivor and Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl called “tragic optimism,” which he described as follows:
… I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in the view of human potential which at its best allows for (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment, (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
In retrospect and through the lens of the crucible of Vincent’s death, reading what I wrote about psychological resilience has a surreal aura. I missed a few key points about the topic, as I’ve outlined here, but that’s not all I think about when reading those rather naïve words. I also consider who I was then juxtaposed with who I am now, with the younger version of myself seeming like one who was describing air travel based upon reports of other travelers, or picturing a foreign city based solely upon a postcard. Much like words fail to describe the complexities of life, love, and death; mechanical scientific reviews can only do so much in providing an understanding of human existence.
What does seem clear—from social science, history, and ancient wisdom—is that we humans have a tremendous capability for adaptation and resilience. At the same time, it’s a fact that neither adaptation nor resilience are guaranteed. The good news, though, is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that how we face, think about, and continually navigate crucibles with each other can make the difference between survival and defeat.
References and for further reading
More about Vincent and the Vincent William Baran Day of Service: click here
Baran, B. E. 2017. Psychological resilience. In Rogelberg, S. G. (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (2nd Ed.): 1280-1283. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006 (first published in 1946).
Maitlis, S. (2009). Who am I now? Sensemaking and identity in posttraumatic growth. In L. M. Roberts & J. E. Dutton (Eds.), Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation (1st ed., pp. 49–76). Psychology Press.
McAndrew, L. M., Markowitz, S., Lu, S.-E., Borders, A., Rothman, D., & Quigley, K. S. (2017). Resilience during war: Better unit cohesion and reductions in avoidant coping are associated with better mental health function after combat deployment. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(1), 52–61. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000152
Orejuela-Dávila, A. I., Levens, S. M., Sagui-Henson, S. J., Tedeschi, R. G., & Sheppes, G. (2019). The relation between emotion regulation choice and posttraumatic growth. Cognition and Emotion, 33(8), 1709–1717. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2019.1592117
Prati, G., & Pietrantoni, L. (2009). Optimism, social support, and coping strategies as factors contributing to posttraumatic growth: A meta-analysis. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14(5), 364–388. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325020902724271
Richards, J. M. (2004). The cognitive consequences of concealing feelings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(4), 131–134. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00291.x