Well Being: Overcoming the inevitable body blows of age

The late Elizabeth Edwards demonstrated how to respond intelligently and with grace to a devastating string of calamities and disappointments.
The late Elizabeth Edwards demonstrated how to respond intelligently and with grace to a devastating string of calamities and disappointments. (MATT SAYLES / AP)
Posted: January 13, 2014

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work - the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside - don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within - that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up"

Lately, I've been brooding about resilience. Part of the reason is I just read a book by that title. The author, the late Elizabeth Edwards, suffered blow after blow yet kept her spirit intact.

There was the loss of her sweet 16-year-old son, Wade, in a freak car accident; the diagnosis of breast cancer; the revelation, after months of brutal therapy, that the cancer had spread; the infidelity of her husband, John, the presidential aspirant, seduced by the jejune pickup line, "You are so hot!"; his false assertion that the affair was a one-night stand; his later admission that the liaison had lasted longer; and, finally, the disclosure that he and his paramour had conceived a child.

"The only way to be resilient when these land mines explode beneath your foundation is first to accept that there is a new reality," Edwards writes. "Each time I fell into a chasm, I had to accept that the planet had taken a few turns and I could not turn it back. My life was and would always be different, and it would be less than I hoped it would be. . . . And the longer I clung to the hope that my old life might come back, the more I set myself up for unending discontent."

Resilience, my dictionary says, is "the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change." Or, as Elizabeth Edwards learned: You cannot change the wind, but you can adjust the sails.

As we age, our emotional and psychological resilience wears down, I believe, as surely as the cartilage that cushions our joints. Though experience and wisdom may offer protection, for some of us the hard blows are more staggering.

The impact of Fitzgerald's "blows" from within is cumulative. A man does not recover from such jolts. He becomes a different person. He may realize he has been drawing on resources he no longer possesses or wonder where the leak is through which his vitality has been trickling away. Suddenly, his soul rebels, his brain snaps. He may become so despairing he takes "the Big Out," as Hemingway did.

Does such a person lack grit? Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania defines grit as "passion and perseverance over the long term." Grit can be taught, she says, by emphasizing hard work - "doing things for thousands of hours spread out over years."

Intrinsic to grit is resilience, because the long commitment to a goal that characterizes grit requires "bouncing back" from failures and setbacks, which are inevitable and often useful. "Many people give up on things too early," she says, "because of a temporary loss of confidence that would have been overcome if they had stuck with it a little longer."

The most resilient person I've known was my grandfather. When he died at 96, he'd outlived his wife and all four children, two of whom killed themselves. Yet to the end, he was cheerful. "Why do you always whistle?" one of his great-grandsons asked just before he died. My grandfather laughed. "I guess I'm just too dumb to be sad."

Being too smart can be a curse. The world is full of brilliant, unhappy people, my grandfather well knew. He was as shrewd as the best of them, but more than willing to trade intellectual self-absorption for contentment.

After he died, I went through his wallet, where I found a laminated piece of paper about the size of a business card with typed advice. On one side: Laugh at self. Change disposition. Get rid of old prejudices. Forget unpleasant past. Recall only pleasant past, present, and future. Smile, be friendly. No worry, no foreboding. Be outgoing, have enthusiasm. Do new and different things.

On the other: I will try to be pleasant. I will not get perturbed or lose my poise. I will not envy. I will not worry. I will not be bitter or resentful. I will be enthusiastic. I will look pleasant, not sober or deadpan. I will get outdoor exercise.

At the bottom was a quote by William James: "Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read more at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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