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Progressive Voice: Resilience in the Time of Pandemic

Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Betsy Withycombe

Once upon a time, after trauma had stolen my health, I began to walk. But no matter how far I roamed the streets of Arlington, no matter how completely I exhausted my body, my mind continued to churn. It felt pointless. My tank of resiliency, normally full, was empty.

Among our family’s collection of books are several editions of dictionaries. I looked in each for the definition of “resilience.” Every edition included a primary definition which defined resilience as the ability to return quickly from hardship or adversity. Secondary definitions offered that resilience was a type of flexibility or elasticity. I prefer the latter definition. One’s ability to be resilient is not measured by the speed at which one addresses adversity; sometimes you have to be gentle with yourself as you adapt to the challenge in front of you and continue moving forward.

In the last ten years I have experienced a clinically significant amount of change, loss, and heartache. The details aren’t important, but I’m sure those of you who saw me in the grocery store never suspected the depth of chaos framing the rest of my life. I practiced good self-care and did all of the things that promised my resilience would return. I sought calm in books. My family and friends did everything they could to remind me that I had grit and that my hardest days were behind me. I tried very hard to listen. I was as gentle with myself as I could be. I walked.

Renewed resilience finally came in the form of a flower (which was probably a weed). As I was dragging myself down the sidewalk thinking many unhelpful thoughts, I noticed a small flower. I took out my cell phone to photograph it. I suddenly noticed many unseen flowers and plants on the very street I had been plodding down every day. I was almost home when I realized something very important: Focusing on something outside myself, I had stopped the continuous loop of despair running on repeat in my mind.

During our self-isolation, by confronting this previously unthinkable situation with innovation and by re-thinking commonplace activities, we are reducing despair. Arlington restaurant owners grieved the shuttering of their dining rooms, and then shifted quickly to online ordering and curbside deliveries. A large social media group for helping neighbors sprang up overnight. Modeling the gratitude of other cities, we participated in “clap-outs” to thank healthcare workers. Food banks called out for donations and their calls were answered. Our schools began the Herculean effort of moving all 28,020 students to online learning. When grocery store shelves emptied of flour and yeast, local bakeries, having lost customer visits, began offering their supplies for home cooks. Churches offered online services to meet the spiritual needs of their congregations. People began using online meeting software to stay connected to people they love. “Stay Healthy” became a standard complimentary closing and was offered to passersby (from a six-foot distance) on walks.

Arlingtonians tamped down their own discomforts and considered ways to help the elderly, immigrants, the homeless, and the low-income residents among us. This was resilience in action and the miracle of thousands of ordinary people stepping outside themselves.  Because I have known trauma, I also know resilience when I see it.

When this virus took hold and we adjusted to self-isolation, Arlingtonians tapped into their resiliency. A global pandemic is a pretty tough time to try and find your grit, determine how much of it you have, and whether you can share it. But where there is resilience there is hope. Hope that the challenge before you isn’t insurmountable. Hope that you can persist in finding the flexibility and determination required during harder times. The amazing thing about resilience is that once you know you have it, it strengthens like a muscle and can be used again and again.

I found my resilience again in a little flowering weed. Arlingtonians stepped outside themselves in isolation and, together with their neighbors, found theirs. They flexed, and their resilience is making us all stronger.

Betsy Withycombe has lived in Arlington County for 28 years. She is a photographer, artist, master baker, and the proud parent of five wonderful children.

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