I recently met my friend John, whom I know from Argentine tango dancing. Over lunch he shared with me that four years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease with Parkinson’s disease–which has been progressively impacting his life. He said that at a recent dance, his arm started shaking and his partner asked if something was wrong. His physician has now recommended he stop driving. Following the initial diagnosis, he refused to believe it; he resisted its reality. But currently he is embracing the physical changes rather than resisting them. How did he get there?
A life of sameness and predictability is far easier to accept than change and unpredictability, but the latter are inevitable. They happen in our work, relationships, and health, as well as our culture, laws, and, notably, weather. Sometimes the change is so dramatic that it can result in our feeling devastated, and thus we resist adapting to it. But there is a resiliency of the human spirit. In an e-mail after our lunch, John wrote: “The real lesson in this experience is the realization that you have Parkinson’s; not that you are Parkinson’s. When I overcame that obstacle, relationships became more precious, gestures became more meaningful, and life became more joyous.”
Embracing resistance as a tool
Resistance often gets a bad rap. If you were offered a new job, you might feel both happy and apprehensive about accepting it. You might have doubts about whether you’re truly qualified to do the work. Uncertainty and fear about the new and unknown are a natural part of human existence. Our ancient ancestors were concerned about what was directly in front of them: Is this something I can consume or will it consume me? What if we were able to view doubt—and thereby resistance—as a guide instructing us to carefully consider before we choose the best action?
What causes us to both welcome and resist change simultaneously? Fred Nichols, managing partner of Distance Consulting, wrote in his blog: “Resistance is evidence that people care about something and want to protect or defend it.” Resistance often reflects real challenges we need to consider, and it can enable us to go within to find what is most important. Resisting, in fact, can be viewed as a way of defending and preserving our lives.
Resistance is prevalent in today’s society. One person who currently exemplifies resistance on the world stage is Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. She started learning about climate issues at age eight and three years later became depressed and lethargic and stopped talking and eating. She was then diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism. Rather than allowing her mental disorders to limit her, she now considers them her “superpower.”
Greta has embraced resistance as a tool. In 2018 at age 15 she made a commitment to protest every Friday outside the Swedish parliament. Her OCD has enabled her to be a tenacious demonstrator on the implications of climate change; she’s mobilized young people and adults to take action on a global scale. As a result of her persistence, on September 20, 2019, four million people protested in over 2,500 events in more than 163 countries on all seven continents!
Three days later, Greta addressed world leaders at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. She accused them of stealing her dreams and her childhood by their inaction on climate change: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. . . . Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
When we recognize our personal resistance to change, or even to the status quo, it does not serve us to ignore it. We first need to be with the resistance—reflect on it and inquire What are we resistant to and is there a message we should heed? In questioning ourselves we begin the process of embracing the resistance.
Synonyms for the word embrace are accept, welcome, and take to heart. Accepting a new reality gives way to welcoming what is, thereby enabling us to take it to heart—and ultimately embrace it. When we embrace it, we bring it into the light, which offers a broader perspective. We then gain the wisdom to handle it. When we are stuck in resistance and fighting, we become locked into a counterproductive mode of perpetual suffering.
John slowly faced the reality of his circumstance; he accepted his resistance and ultimately embraced it. By doing so, he opened himself to his true essence—beyond the Parkinson’s. While limitations on his lifestyle are evolving, he’s not focusing on what he can’t do or won’t be able to do in the future. Rather he’s living each day mindfully and with gratitude for all the things he can do and for what he values most—relationships. He seeks creative ways to do things and remains open to new experiences. As for Greta, she accepted her diagnoses and then channeled her efforts into a purposeful mission.
From resistance to resilience
We are living in unprecedented times, with massive changes unfolding all the time. They are global, economic, social, and environmental—as well as personal. New technologies are taking the place of jobs. Environmental disasters are driving migration and causing species to become extinct. Our challenge is to meet these changes with equilibrium.
Our capacity to overcome adversity is innate. According to psychotherapist and consultant Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back, Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, resilience is the capacity to respond to pressures, changes, and even tragedies quickly and effectively.
There is an innate drive for all living things to thrive. When a seedling encounters resistance, such as an obstacle that blocks its light and restricts its growth, it bends toward the light or finds an alternate path to it. When we humans experience trauma and setbacks, Graham encourages mindful awareness that shifts our perspective and enables us to discern options and make wise choices. She believes that we all have the capacity for resilience; by reestablishing centeredness, we become whole and have the opportunity to flourish. Embracing resistance ultimately ignites our resilience.