Building Resilience Through Crisis
As part of our PARENTING DURING A PANDEMIC series, we interviewed Bainbridge Island husband and wife team, Jon Mooallem and Wandee Pryor, PsyD.
Jon, the author of This is Chance! and Wild Ones (one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2013), is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. Wandee is a clinical psychologist who has been working with individuals and families since 2009.
On March 12, Jon’s article, This Is How You Live When the World Falls Apart, was featured on the front page of the New York Times Opinion page (This is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, a Voice That Held It Together, the book that article was excerpted from, was just released nationwide.)
We interviewed Jon and Wandee about resilience, one of the major themes in both Jon’s article and latest book, This is Chance!, and a cornerstone of the work Wandee practices with her clients.
Jon, resilience is a reoccurring theme in your article. You write about “an empowered, collaborative undertaking.... coming together to keep our distance.” With that in mind, do you think this crisis has the potential to increase our collective resilience? If so, do you think it will be short-lived or have a lasting impact?
Yes, absolutely: It may not be something we’ll really have the luxury of thinking about too in depth for a while, but clearly alongside all the terribleness happening right now is an opportunity to build up our capacity to weather other disruptions in the future. A big part of that, I think, would simply be building a more equitable society, in which more people’s health, livelihood and well-being is more secure—which is obviously a wonderful and just thing in general, not just when a disaster strikes. How deeply we internalize those lessons, and whether we carry them forward once life begins to re-stabilize, is entirely up to us. I can’t predict it.
Wandee, is there an active approach we can take with ourselves and our children to build, rather than deplete, resilience?
As I’m sure many of us currently are aware, living in a state of fear is depleting, though right now it feels inevitable. There’s fear for our health, the health of loved ones, the health of the community that surrounds us, our financial and/or professional stability and fear for the stability of our health care system.
For most of us, an answer to fear is focusing on that within our control and on what feels purposeful, something that allows us to feel helpful and connected and develop a sense that maybe, even in a crisis like this, there is something we can contribute or learn. Finding agency and utility in challenging experiences grounds us—we become involved in the situation, not just victimized by it. You can feel that shift when community and families reach out to support one another. The focus shifts from simply surviving to engaging.
The recommendations for parents is always to make sure they are taking care of themselves, not simply their children and managing their own emotions. It is hard to effectively parent when depleted. And children are great readers of emotion, especially those of their loved ones, so making sure to be honest but reassuring and age appropriate in the conveying of information is crucial.
We all know that sometimes the greatest comfort comes from the simplest things:Staying connected, even if those connections are virtual for the time being. Going outside. Feeling that nature is unchanged, feeling small compared to old trees or the Puget Sound. Routines and structure so that all moments of the day do not feel that they are bleeding into each other without distinction. Making more conscious choices about what to watch or read, and how much media to be consumed. Finding ways to create and play. Finding ways to feel connected to your senses and your body.
Jon, an event of this magnitude changes us individually and collectively. How do you think these changes will impact parents, particularly in our community?
We’re still so much in the throes of this. I can’t possibly make any predictions. For now—despite all the obvious stresses and volatility having kids out of school creates—I hope that parents are finding some joy in the experience with their kids, or seeing new sides of their kids, or seeing them step up. That would be one small, good thing. It would be great if some families came out of this feeling stronger.
Wandee, given that this has stopped us in our tracks, do you anticipate a resulting shift in expectations that could end up relieving some of the academic and societal pressures placed on our youth?
I can’t help but wonder if the newness of this experience offers a unique opportunity. What we are living through right now is unprecedented. We are experiencing it without expectations or format and that may give permission to families to let go of a lot of their concepts of how to do things “right,” to drop a tendency to compare and compete and instead, because time allows and there is no template, be more patient and flexible with one another.
There’s a concept that comes from one of my favorite psychologists, D.W. Winnicott, that suggests health comes from a balance between “doing” and “being.” He believes that young children more naturally develop the ability to “be” and that it is from this natural place that play, creativity and connection and comfort with one’s self happens. As we grow, we start to strive outward more, and our experience centers more and more around “doing.”
As a culture, we’re great at striving—at “doing”—but not so well practiced at “being.” Even someone who meditates is likely to do that on a certain schedule, fit-in between lots of other activities. I think the current state that we find ourselves in may allow us to reevaluate what actually matters and force us to reengage in a practice of slowing down and working together.
A lot of the pressure on our students and parents that we’ve learned to live with is halted. We can learn to tolerate that shift and fill the space that’s opened up with deeper values.
Jon and Wandee, how are you building resilience with your family during this time?
We think we are trusting our children to do more for themselves and each other, and trying really hard to create, more than ever, a shared identity as a family and an atmosphere in our house of collaboration and togetherness. That isn’t always something we’ve excelled at as a family, so it will be a slow process, but we have a lot of time.