Gravity and the Power of Resilience

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I’ve discovered over time that the rush of life into the tender place where we are broken is the beginning of resilience.” – Mark Nepo

The astonishing new film Gravity by director Alfonso Cuoron tells the story of astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, who finds herself alone in space after the death of her colleagues and the destruction of her space station from satellite debris. The film is rich with spiritual significance, but it most clearly tells the story of remarkable resilience by its main character, and a story which can teach leaders and all of us how better to meet life’s challenges and to come back from dark places in our lives.

Spoiler alert: The film’s plot and endings are revealed below.

There are five key principles of resilience that I observed in Gravity:

1. Maintain a sense of humor. Astronaut Matt Kowalsky, played by George Clooney, provided Dr. Stone with some comedic relief during the otherwise suspenseful drama being played out in the silences of space. His one liners and wit provide a level of context and sanity to the most stressful of circumstances. He even finds humor in the circumstances themselves because the context and the situations are so outrageous that one has to laugh, even amidst the gloom. Those who keep their heads amidst difficult circumstances find a way to laugh with themselves and others at the ridiculous circumstances until they reach better shores. It sounds insensitive, but don’t take yourself or circumstances too seriously. It’s part of the adventure of being human. HuffingtonPost’s Third Metric tells the story of a very well known corporate executive in New York Sallie Krawcheck. She was fired from her job, but she explained later that she was grateful that she had been fired. She responded, “How many get to get fired and it’s on the front of the Wall Street Journal?” Being fired, and in such a public position, is no fun. But finding the humor in it restores our humanity and gives us a sense of perspective with ourselves and with others.

Can you find humor in your crises? Do you make time to be with family or friends during sufferings so you can laugh and return to temporary sanity?

2. Prepare now for possible outcomes. Even though she was a doctor and not an astronaut by training, Dr. Stone made it through trying circumstances because of her preparation and fitness prior to the misadventures in space. The way she prepared on the ground empowered her for the trials in space. She was trained to operate and fly the U.S. space station, but also a Russian Soyuz craft as well as a Chinese station. Even though she had to refer to manuals to operate the craft, she was sufficiently aware of her objectives even when she did not know the exact procedures. The film attractively presents Dr. Stone’s very fit physique, revealing her physical fitness and attention to her body for a woman of her age. It was her fitness, training and knowledge gained in long years of preparation that enabled her to survive when the cards were down. And so it is for us still here on the ground. When life throws us a curve, it is the solid foundation of mental, spiritual and physical fitness that serve as a solid foundation for survival of a crisis. What investments are you making today in each of these areas so that you are developing a bank of fitness deposits for the tough times? 

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3. Let past trials inspire your current determination. Before pursuing her career in space, Dr. Stone had survived the loss of her only daughter to an accident. Nothing is more tragic than the loss of a child, and Dr. Stone had found a way to pursue another great challenge after this loss and to succeed. While being alone in the darkness and silence of space is a unique travail, the determination and resources to survive it are not unlike those that we need to survive all of life’s great tragedies and trials. Dr. Stone could face the unknowns and difficulties when she remembered her daughter and the loss of her colleague Matt Kowalsky, and she allowed these difficulties as well as the memories to inspire her determination to move into the future.

In his most recent book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell points out that it is life’s limits and disadvantages that often “advantage” us because they create distinctive skills, empathy and behaviors that allow us to have a competitive advantage over others who rely on their advantages that turn out to their weaknesses. Rather than being disadvantaged on the battle field, King David’s shepherd status allowed him to develop slinger skills that actually advantaged him against an heavily armored but slow lumbering giant Goliath. Life’s limits, crises and disadvantages have a way in the rhythms of the universe of creating new solutions and unexpected advantages if we allow suffering to inspire us rather than to drown us. Some of the world’s most successful people have been fired from their jobs or lost elections. “As a sense of competence increases, individuals are better able to respond effectively in unfamiliar or challenging situations and persevere in the face of failures and challenges,” Kathleen M. Sutcliffe and Timothy J. Vogus write in Organizing for Resilience. What have you learned in crisis moments or suffering? How could you use what you learned to inspire you or transform you now?

4. Let go, then focus on the next step. When Dr. Stone was losing oxygen and her mind in the midst of the whirling debris and spiraling circumstances, it was Matt Kowalsky who empowered her resilience. He first told  her that she had to let go of him. The most difficult part of our way back from dark places is letting go of our dependencies, some of which may have led us to the dark space in the first place. If we are going to find a way through the crisis, we first must admit that we are not in control, and then let go of all the things on which we have depended in the past that won’t work for us in the future. Once Dr. Stone had let go, Kowalsky focused her on the big picture and the next steps to get there. Towards the end of the film, Dr. Stone learns again that life is a series of letting gos, all the way up to that final moment when we have to move forward and realize that the ultimate outcomes of our lives is in the hands of a loving Creator and not in our own.

Rather than become discombobulated over all of the challenges between the present moment and her safe arrival back on earth, Dr. Stone continued to focus on that next step, rather than all of the steps, to reach her ultimate goal. Crises of personal grief, the loss of a job, the failure to achieve a promotion, or the end of a relationship become much more manageable if we can get up on “the balcony” where we can see the big picture, break down the steps needed to get back to where we want to be, and then just focus in the present moment on that next step. The others are out of our control and will come next. Mapping out all of the steps gives us some confidence, but it also can be overwhelming. So begin today on the step where you are.

What do you need to let go of if you are to return or arrive at a better place? All transformation requires pain, loss and the grief of letting go. What are all of the steps that would be involved in getting from the “here” of your present crisis to the “there” of your future hopes? 

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5. Look for the beauty and express your gratitude when you experience it again. Before Matt Kowalsky left Dr. Stone alone in space, his last words to her were to look for the sunset over the mountains. These parting words were words of hope because they enabled her to believe that the night would turn to morning, and that she again would see beauty where she now saw only darkness. This is not just wishful thinking. In the midst of tragedy or challenge, it is the remembrance of relationships we treasure, the recall of simple beauty, the memories of former times of joy, and the hope for the return of these to our lives that keep us moving forward in the most trying of circumstances. The failure to remember and to hope allows despondency, doom and victimhood to overtake us. The faith and hope that the good times and the beauty will return allow us to keep believing and keep acting until the sun rises again. “For the sufferings of this present time are not worthy of being compared with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (St. Paul, Romans 8:18).

Once Dr. Stone arrives safely back on earth, she crawls out of the ocean water and feels the sand run through her fingers while she lays prostrate on the ground. The crisis of space was hundreds of miles away but its jarring memory was still fresh in her mind, and it was not time to get up yet. Before she could walk into the future, she needed to experience the sheer gratitude that comes when we have survived and found ourselves on the ground again. And so she looks to the sky, feels the ground, and says the words that we learn in the moments of resilience, “Thank you.”

As I watched this moment, I thought of a very dark time in my own life. In the late fall of 2008, my mother passed away. In the summer of 2009, I lost my job in the height of the country’s great recession. For months, I networked. I applied to countless jobs. I struggled with my own professional identity. I was behind on my bills. Throughout that time, I would laugh with friends when one thing after another kept going wrong. I kept meeting them for lunch or dinner to stay connected. I had to let go of hopes of a return to my former job or the relationships there. I remembered that I had made it through tough times before and trusted that I would this time too. Then out of the blue, a prospective client called me that I had cultivated through simply taking that “next step” of creating my LinkedIn profile. After almost two years of what seemed like a never-ending career nightmare, I received the contract for work that continues to this day. As I rose early on that first day to fly to my assignment, I walked through the corridors of LAX, again in my suit and tie, and again returning to the joy of work I loved and the feeling that I matter. And as I did so, I remember tears flowing down my face, and all I could say, over and over again, was, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

If you are in a present crisis, envision where you want to be when it’s over. What do you want to feel again? Whose embrace do you want to have again? What places do you want to go? What career do you want to have? Practice mindfulness. Meditate on these. Trust and believe they can be yours again because any day that we are alive is an opportunity to begin and to live again. Space ships return to earth, and resurrections still happen.

These five steps of resiliency are how Dr. Stone survived space, and that’s how we can survive whatever dark, lonely and silent moments come our way until we can rise again to the life that still awaits us.

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Comments
One Response to “Gravity and the Power of Resilience”
  1. hwaitah says:

    Totally digg this post. I found the film really engaging and though-provoking too.

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