Growing Resilience

12/18/2013 @ 12:00pm

Season’s greetings! Did you notice the holiday decorations on display before Halloween? (Never mind Thanksgiving!) Soon the Christmas cards will arrive.

In 1974, a man named Phillip Kunz sent 600 Christmas greetings, including a short handwritten note or a family photo. He received responses from more than 200. This outcome might seem disappointing, until you realize he didn’t know any of these people; he randomly selected names from the phone book. Even more astonishing, he continued to receive cards from some of these total strangers for 15 years.

It was all part of an experiment for Kunz, a Brigham Young University sociologist, who wanted to study a social behavior known as the rule of reciprocation (we feel a sense of obligation to give back to others who have given to us).

Don’t you wonder if the same experiment would turn out differently today? If it’s true that people send fewer cards, it’s less likely they’d reciprocate so readily. Yet, the holiday season is so hectic that we often go through the motions on automatic pilot.

Does it seem the daily headlines distract you from the serenity of the season, and it gets harder to filter out the inconsequential? Do you need a boost to catapult you into a celebratory spirit?

The weather in 2013 left a highly visible mark on many farm communities. September’s deadly floodwaters in Colorado destroyed the corn harvest, along with silage and feed for cattle, as well as irrigation systems. For some wheat growers, it also eased the drought.

On October 4, families in northeastern Nebraska and northwest Iowa were left picking up the pieces of their lives after a dozen tornadoes ripped through the region. A day earlier, South Dakota producers were socked by a cattle-killing October blizzard.

Not to be forgotten, many farmers suffered a second consecutive year of drought. In agriculture, we think we’re accustomed to weather disasters. However, experts warn that climate shifts will spawn recurring weather extremes. No doubt future generations of farmers will have to cultivate new varieties of inner resilience: the ability to recover readily and adaptafterillness, depression, or adversity.

But personal tragedies supercede the losses of farm property and assets. Almost every week there are senseless shootings. In 2013, the brutality of the world muscled its way into my rural turf.

A 15-year-old girl walking home from school was kidnapped and killed at a site only a few miles from my farm. To the south 10 miles, domestic violence claimed the life of a young woman, leaving two children without a mom and their father in prison.

I think of the young man killed in a snowmobile overturn, and the life-threatening illnesses and diseases afflicting friends and family. I think of the fragility of life, the harsh realities of Mother Nature, the inability to protect loved ones.

In her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott tries to sort it out. “Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it,” she writes. “We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild whole towns after hurricanes and tornadoes. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. ... In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we are changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can.”

It’s all about resilience. How do we sow the seeds that grow greater resilience?

1. Develop strong social and community networks to build reserves of social capital.

2. Be an unshakable optimist and have faith in the meaning of life.

3. Get in the habit of helping others and be willing to seek help when you need it.

4. Find healthy ways to cope with stress.

“You start wherever you can,” Lamott writes. “You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch ...”

And so it's not surprising that a group of ranchers created Heifers for South Dakota. Working with others in 10 states, they’re collecting donations. Ty Linger, Miles City, Montana, says they’ve delivered 500 replacement heifers. Monetary donations also can be made at or the Facebook page, Heifers for S. Dakota. Call Linger at 406/351-3716.

Good enough again

Recovery is a slow process, and it may help to remember Lamott's analogy of darning eggs. “Darning is to send parallel threads through the damage in socks and sweaters, in and out, in and out, back and forth, over and under, and somehow, you have a piece of fabric again – such as the heel of a sock – that’s good enough again, against all odds,” she writes. “This is sort of a miracle – good enough again. ... it definitely helps to have a darning egg as you go through life. Trust me on this.”

So, we count our blessings and name them one by one: weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, cancers in remission, and reconnected friends. We decorate our homes, help stage the Sunday School pageant, bake cookies, place wreaths on loved ones’ graves. We draw near to one another and savor the season.