Reflection: Tapping into your resilience

To be your best self, be resilient.

While watching this year’s annual patriotic pops concert, “A Capitol Fourth,” on PBS, I was touched to see Vanessa Williams, the co-host, in great voice and gorgeous at 57.

Resilience has brought her a long way since 1983. That’s when she surrendered her crown as Miss America because of unauthorized nude photos that had been taken of her with another woman when she was working as a photographer’s assistant. News had leaked out that they were going to be published in Penthouse.

Alas, I snickered along with the rest of America when talk show host David Letterman observed that due to the nature of the photos, she at least should have retained the title of Miss Congeniality. But Williams has had the last laugh.

With a great career in music, television and theater, she’s overcome what she has called the worst thing that ever happened to her, noting, “Success is the best revenge.”

As proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, consider Malala Yousafazi, a passionate 23-year-old Pakistani advocate for the education of women and children.

In 2012, she survived a bullet to the head from a Taliban gunman because of her activism, just after taking an exam. In 2013, she co-authored, “I Am Malala,” an international bestseller. And in 2014 she became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (as co-recipient) at the age of 17.

I thought of these women’s remarkable resilience recently when reading Harvard Business Review’s 2010 book, “On Managing Yourself.” It quoted Dean Becker, CEO of Adaptiv Learning Systems, on the subject: “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”

Most women don’t have to look far beyond their families to find models of resilience.

I named my daughter after my great-aunt, Kate Hammond, who raised her family through her work as a seamstress with great dignity after her husband succumbed to alcoholism. When creditors appeared at the door, she would tell them regally, “Mr. Hammond is at the office.” (The office was a bar or a riverboat betting parlor).

As the de facto single mother of twin girls and their two older brothers, Aunt Kate had her hands so full that she developed her own logistics, joking, “I do fine until somebody helps me.”

I named my daughter after her — just Kate, not Katherine — because of the potent strength that one syllable symbolizes for me. (She has lived up to it.)

Fortunately, my setbacks have been garden-variety — first a sudden divorce, then a bout with an aggressive cancer caught early while I was in seemingly abundant health with no family history or risk factors. (Ladies, get your mams grammed.)

In both cases, I took comfort from the words of writer Lorraine Hansberry: “There is always something left to love.”

I still loved my lifelong work with words. And although I had generous supervisors who told me to take all the time off I needed, I soon learned that what I most craved was time on, so that I could feel like me.

Another model of resilience for me is the late Judy Essman, of Dubuque, who owned a children’s bookstore, Small World Books.

In a moving letter telling regular customers of the store’s closing, she wrote, “When you see me in the store or in the community, don’t be afraid. Having cancer is not the end of the world. In fact, it can bring about changes that enhance our lives. Please let your children know that it is fine to ask me how I am feeling. Their direct questions and honest statements are breaths of fresh air.”

Lovely Judy took strenuous hikes until almost the end, explaining that she would rather die on a trail than miss seeing the top of a mountain. She was the epitome of resilience.

Rebecca Christian is a freelance writer from Ames, Iowa.

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