From high in the mountains, a lesson on resiliency during the age of the coronavirus

I’ve learned a lot from the mountains. A deep love for conservation, for starters. An appreciation of their scale and power, too. And in climbing them, I’ve picked up lessons in endurance, situational awareness and tolerance for risk.

But success in the peaks can be summed up in one word: resilience.

The toughness implied in that word is all-encompassing. A successful summit attempt (and that sometimes means turning back short of the top) is based on the resilience of your body, mind and spirit. If you come up short in these areas, the chances of failure — and potentially harm — rise dramatically.

Resilience is a word that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Before the Great Recession, my household income was at its peak. But there were areas of weakness that would be exposed when times got tough, and I learned a lot from that. “Never again,” I told myself, hoping to avoid the pitfalls that befell me when I lost my job and had to find work in a new town. As best as I could, I tried to figure out how to become more resilient when storms appear on the horizon.

And just like that, here we are. The arrival of COVID-19 brought a pandemic to our country, and with it came an immediate recession. We’re being told to stay home, work remotely and go out only for essential business. Nearly 17 million people are out of work. And millions more, like me, are losing income from furloughs or loss of customers. That doesn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands who have become sick with this nasty virus.

It reminded me of that word, and how important resilience is. I’ve thought about it a lot over the past year, and it’s come into sharp focus over the past month. Here’s how I see that term playing out now:

You need to be physically resilient. Like any disease, this new coronavirus is particularly cruel to those whose health is already compromised. I’m reminded of a poster that graced the wall of a gym I used to go to that had one short line written at the bottom: The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill. Physical fitness, a healthy diet and proper sleep are your weapons to defend against not only the virus, but also the stress that comes with it, and the economic hardships that have befallen us as a result. Find ways to be active. Walk, run, ride your bike, lift weights. Eat healthy foods, not just comfort foods that taste good, but aren’t nutritionally valuable. Get your sleep. These habits are what make athletes great, and they work well for the rest of us, too. Not only can you make your body more fit, but a good exercise routine will help work off stress. And remember that poster: If you’re stronger and fitter, you’ll be a better survivor.

You need to be mentally resilient. Mental toughness is critical when hard times arrive. Create in yourself a mindset that accepts that things aren’t ideal, then launch your efforts from there. In other words, you know that things suck, so what can you do about it? Train yourself to work with the facts and circumstances as they are, not what they used to be. If you’re facing some time off from your job, see if there are things you can learn that will expand your marketable knowledge and skills. Keep your mind active, working and thinking toward solutions to the problems you’re currently facing. A proactive, engaged mind will propel you toward making decisions on your terms rather than repeatedly reacting to — or knuckling under — new challenges. Give yourself some grace when you feel overwhelmed. But in so doing, stay the course and don’t stay too long in those moments of anxiety and sadness. Use the tools at your disposal the manage your mind and your emotions.

Build resilience in your finances. This is a tough one, because most of us are a paycheck or two away from disaster. Part of that is the reality of where wages are for middle class and lower-income workers. But also, some of that is our fault. Personal finance gurus like Dave Ramsey suggest having an emergency fund that’s equal to 6-9 months of income, and personally, I think that’s unrealistic for most people. But he has a point. Having an emergency fund to make up for lost income is critical. Pay down your debts as much as possible. And given where we’re at now, it’s high time to cut expenses. Take a hard look at all those monthly box subscription services, online streaming services and other expenses you have. Sort them out by “wants” and “needs,” and be honest about it. Build up the ability to be able to weather this storm or, if needed, be able to quickly pick up and move to where new job opportunities are. And when this downturn passes, keep up these new habits. Chances are, you can get by maintaining your old car, not using credit cards and ordering fewer things on Amazon instead of falling into old free-spending habits that weaken your financial position. And if at all possible, avoid dipping into retirement savings. Sometimes it’s impossible, but resist that as long as you can as it’s incredibly difficult to make those losses down the road.

Work on your spiritual resilience. In this case, you can find comfort and inner strength by embracing your faith. Find time to dive into those sacred texts and pray. Look for wisdom there to help you deal with the stresses, questions and anger that confronts you. These are often quiet, solitary times that will allow you to slow down, see things more clearly and inform the decisions you make and actions you take.

And even if you’re not a religious person, you can still apply “spiritual” practices that will make you inwardly stronger. Find time to be alone in a quiet setting, be still, breathe deep. Go on a long walk, ride or run. Maybe do some gardening. Or yoga. These activities have rhythmic, meditative or peaceful attributes that parallel what many religious people find when they pray and meditate on scriptures. Meditative practices tend to unclutter your mind and create inner peace.

I know that some of us are going to get trucked over the next several months. The Great Recession jacked me up for years, and frankly, I never fully recovered from the losses of that downturn. But I learned from it. My hope is that we can weather this and come out OK on the other side. We can’t control a lot of the bigger forces at work, but we can put on our own personal armor and steel ourselves for the challenges ahead. Truth is, we don’t have another option because giving in is no option at all.

And that brings me back to what I’ve learned on the mountain. The peaks can be beautiful, peaceful and energizing. But they can be scary, dangerous and even violent places, too. Getting to the top — or getting off the mountain safely — is often a combination of enjoyment, effort, fear and wisdom. The constant is it’s never easy. But another constant for those who have had success in the mountains is that they are resilient. And resiliency is a character trait from which we can all benefit now.

Bob Doucette

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