Reflections on Resilience

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places."

I love this quote. It is from Ernest Hemingway's novel “A Farewell To Arms”, about Hemingway’s experience as a young ambulance driver in Italy at the end of the First World War.

A few years ago, I discovered the Asian version of that quote. Actually, it’s not really a quote. It’s an art form.

When a ceramic bowl or piece of pottery breaks, we tend to want to repair it by disguising and hiding the cracks, trying to make the faults and breakages invisible. Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using gold. Instead of hiding the flaws, gold filled crack lines celebrate and illuminate the places where the pottery was broken. Instead of seeing flawed, damaged and broken pieces, we now see beautiful works of art, each with its own very unique individual gold lines marking the cracks in the pottery.

Where are your broken places? What are the one of a kind wounds of your life, wounds that you are trying to disguise and hide? What would your fractures look like, if you were to celebrate them with gold? We want to see!

Richard Branson considers dyslexia his greatest business advantage, encouraging him to learn to delegate and forcing his staff to keep things simple. Steve Jobs considered getting fired from Apple the best thing that could have ever happened to him. He said, “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” He was back at Apple 12 years after getting fired, and went on to produce iconic products like the iPhone and the iPad. Soichiro Honda drifted from one job to another, as an engineer, mechanic, race car driver, janitor and even babysitter. He was turned down by Toyota Motor Corporation and ran into dead ends over and over again. He founded Honda Motor Company when he was 42. Michelle Yeoh suffered a back injury, destroying her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina. Instead, she became Asia’s highest paid actress. Oprah Winfrey was abused by family members and friends, ran away from home and had a child at 14 who died shortly after birth. Today she is worth billions.

These people don’t think less of themselves when they fail. Well, they probably do from time to time, but not for long. They tend to see adversity and change as a normal part of everyday life, rather than an exception that only happens to “unlucky people like me”. They may say to themselves, “Things didn’t work out as planned”. But they would certainly never say, “I am a failure.”

“I am hungry, I am thirsty, I am angry, I am tired …” really? You “are” all of these things? Or are you simply experiencing them? Sometimes, normal, everyday language has a way of tricking our brain into thinking we are not in control of our lives, our emotions and even who we are.

“You make me angry when you do that.” Now that is a great way to give up all responsibility of your emotions. Who is it that makes you angry? Is it really the other person? Or is it yourself, choosing to be angry?

“You make me unhappy.” Who is it that really makes you unhappy? The other person? Really?

Here is another one: “I am no good at this. I can’t dance. I have two left feet.” That’s me.

How about saying instead, “I get myself all worked up with anger when you do that.” This reminds you that you always have the choice of getting yourself worked up or not.

“I make myself feel unhappy when you say that to me.”

Or: “When I dance, I tell myself that I must look stupid, and I choose to be unhappy at dancing until I think that I look good.”

One who speaks in this way, taking full ownership of his or her feelings and emotions, commands attention and respect. You’re not blaming outside forces for what’s happening to you. You’re not blaming others for your anger, happiness, success. You are in full control of your emotions, and frankly, even though this sounds hyperbolic, you’re in far better control of your destiny. You decide to get upset or not. You decide to be joyful or not. You decide to be successful or not. At any moment. And when you want to change to another way of being, that’s always there as an option. You don’t have to wait for something external to happen.

At a deeper level, you’re not even blaming yourself. Here is one of the most subtle ways we play victim: “I blame myself for trusting you. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” And all that line of thought. This sounds very responsible, but it is still in that same space of trying to cover up the cracks in the pottery and make them disappear.

When you can even stop blaming yourself, you develop the ability to look back at your younger self, the one who broke that beautiful ceramic bowl, and gaze with love and compassion, the way you might look at a child. You develop the ability to zoom forward decades into the future, as a wise elderly person, and look back at your present self with that same loving gaze, amazed at the experiences that you are going through, confident of your ability to bounce back and thrive.

When you get to this level, you no longer talk in ways that blame your cracks, wounds, fractures or whatever adversity you happen to be facing. You are instead celebrating your failures with gold. Show us! We want to see!