Resilience rooted in caring for others

  • Published
  • By Paula Tracy
  • Family advocacy program manager
Over my 24-plus years in government service, I've been exposed to many diverse career opportunities: active duty Army social work officer, oncology and renal clinic support, outpatient mental health, drug and alcohol treatment, healing of trauma survivors, family advocacy intervention, prevention and outreach, corrections, sexual assault prevention and response, and the development and delivery of programs designed to promote individual and family resilience. I've also held a variety of part-time clinical positions, including school- and home-based child therapy, private practice, providing mental health services to inmates in a maximum security women's prison, and -- for the last seven years -- working with the terminally ill in a nursing home setting.

Each assignment has been professionally illuminating and personally rewarding. And every single one of them has taught me powerful lessons about the tensile strength of the human spirit -- lessons I simply never could have learned in any other way.

It's always been tough to convey to others why I love the work I do. I recall attempting in the past by explaining about the 3-year-old with terminal cancer who begged me to ensure her mommy and daddy would be all right because, after all, she had "seen an angel" and she was "going to be just fine!" Or about the hundreds upon hundreds of childhood trauma survivors I've known through the years that have made that conscious, albeit extremely tough decision, to bravely face their pasts and claim their futures. Or the nursing home resident who, when faced with his imminent mortality, conducted an unflinching, agonizing life review with me. These explanations are sometimes met with blank stares.

In my daily work, people frequently share their life stories of pain with me. And what amazes me each time is that, so often when they have finished, they thank me. This always surprises me because I truly, deeply believe the honor is mine. You see, when a person makes a choice to share the insight, wisdom, maturity and understanding born of pain and loss, it's a gift above all others. Even more, what I've really offered them is the one basic thing we all need and desire -- simple human caring. But get this: the more I care for people and the more I give of myself, the stronger I become. It's pretty nifty how it works. And this is what I struggle to relate to others to help them understand.

Early one recent evening, I was working out in one of our base fitness facilities. There happened to be a gentleman there with whom I have often exchanged a friendly greeting, and as I was finishing up the last few minutes of my cardio, he stopped for a quick chat. He explained that he was waiting on one of his best friends, a dear friend since the 1980s. He characterized their friendship as a brotherhood, leading us to a discussion about the true meaning of friendship and the preciousness of human connection. As we talked, he went on to share specific, character-molding life experiences: an abusive childhood, witnessing the tragic, sudden death of his mother, an assortment of life-threatening health issues. What I found to be interesting was the absolute absence of self-pity; instead, he focused on those things that had carried him through the difficult times. His face was positively glowing as he emphasized strong, nurturing friendships, spirituality -- that faith in a higher power -- working out, eating right and caring for others.

And I realized then that I had met someone who fully understood one of the "secrets" behind resilience: investing in other people.

I absolutely agree with him. I believe it is at the very core of resilience -- why in family advocacy we can maintain effectiveness despite difficult and stressful caseloads, how I can continuously share the life reviews of nursing home residents and feel fortunate for having done so, the reason the sexual assault prevention and response folks can daily oversee the myriad needs of their clients. Excellent self-care skills, a strong spiritual base -- these things are critical -- but when it comes to continuously refueling that ... passion, that internal desire to serve others ... I'm certain it comes down to simple human caring -- loving others and and looking outside oneself.

So take a look around. There are Airmen on this installation right now who are hurting, lonely, confused or feeling invisible. You have a tremendous amount of power to make a positive difference in a person's life by offering a smile, eye contact, a word of encouragement, the offer of support or a quiet, listening ear. You might be the person who will be remembered for the rest of someone's life because of a simple, kind act. It's quite easy. It's fun. It might start a positive trend. And the coolest part? It's good for you.