More often I’m being asked to teach people to become more resilient, and as I’ve said before, resilience is not something that can be learned. Resilience, unfortunately, is something only gained through experience. Through practice. By doing, or experiencing, hard things.
So step number one on the path towards resilience: start doing hard things.
The hard truth is you can’t become more resilient by seeking comfort.
I could, and will write a look more about this subject, but for now want to share something I wrote in 1998 for A Test of Will about one of my first experience in recognizing the value of resilience. It’s a longer post (reading time approx 16 minutes), so here’s the key takeaway from the closing sentence right up front:
… strength (or resilience) is gained from pushing beyond what is known, what is comfortable.
Breathing hard, bent over with both hands on my trembling knees, looking down at feet that I could barely move, I’d rather have been elsewhere. I’d never felt so exhausted, so totally drained of energy. I felt like the other toy in the Energizer commercials, the one whose inferior batteries pack it in prematurely, leaving the Energizer-equipped guy to power on alone. That’s who I was: the guy who couldn’t hack it.
“Just leave me here, I’ll go back down to the bus.”
All I wanted to do was go home. At one point, I dropped to the ground as my legs gave way underneath me, my left calf trying to turn itself inside out. A feeling of utter uselessness filled me. I can’t do this. It’s too hard! But of course going home was out of the question. It was a team effort, a team building, character building exercise. I was 19 years old, in the third year of my four-year apprenticeship as a pipeline ranger with the Gas & Fuel Corporation of Victoria. Based in Ballarat, just over an hour west of Melbourne, my job was to carry out maintenance on the 120-kilometer (74-mile) gas pipeline between the two cities. Somebody had decided that, in order to communicate with the farmers whose land our high-pressure pipeline passed through, we needed to do a farming apprenticeship. So over three years, I spent one week of each month attending trade school at the Wangaratta College of TAFE.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I learnt some handy skills over those four years: how to de-horn cattle, for instance; how to knock up a quick mallee gate (a temporary gate made of eucalyptus); what to do when the sheep are all fly-blown or the Massey Ferguson just will not turn over. Chris Truscott, who held the same position on the Gippsland pipeline two hours east of Melbourne, and I were definitely the odd ones out. Our classmates were all sons of local farmers who’d sent their boys off to TAFE to get some kind of qualification behind them before they took over the family farm. Finding it difficult to see any relevance between our jobs and shearing sheep, Chris and I were both fed up with the whole situation. So when I learned we would be going on a four-day hike into the Bogong high plains (in the state’s alpine area), I looked at it as a kind of holiday away from the more mundane aspects of the course.
I soon realized that John Kirby, who organized the backcountry components of the course, was not your average teacher. I didn’t see it at the time, but he tried to instill in us an understanding of the land—not just for farming purposes, but so we would have a sense of our connection to it. Above all, he wanted us to grasp our responsibility to it as farmers, who rely on the land for a living. And looking back, I’m sure he must have gone to great lengths to have that trip included as part of the curriculum, as it would have been seen by some of his peers (as it was to me at the time) as completely irrelevant.
A month before the hike, John suggested that it would be a good idea if we spent some time working on fitness.
Yeah right. How hard can it be? We’re only hiking; it’s not as if we’ll be running up there!
I went for a couple of easy 3‑ to 5-kilometer (2‑ to 3-mile) runs over the next month, nothing over the top. I was nineteen. All I wanted to do when I wasn’t working was drink beer and have a good time.
“It would be better if you could find some decent hills to train on,” was John’s final suggestion. Yeah, no problem, I thought sarcastically, not realizing what I was in for.
On a Tuesday afternoon, we arrived at the trailhead campground at Mountain Creek, where we made camp for the night. We were all still treating the whole adventure as a bit of a joke, having no idea what could possibly lie ahead. I crawled out of the tent next morning into the high country mist wearing all the clothing I’d brought with me, including my woollen army pants. I hope it doesn’t get too much colder, I thought to myself. And after a hurried breakfast, we were off, at a leisurely pace, along a dirt forestry track.
This isn’t so bad. What was all the fuss about having to be fit? For this!?
We’d split into our own little groups, just cruising along talking trash, when John called out from behind, “ok, turn right where you are now!” I looked right to see a small track disappearing into the trees, but my attention was drawn skyward, as I tilted my head back to find the horizon.
“Shit!” was all I could say, my eyes following the trail as it snaked its way up the steep northern slope of Mount Bogong. Over the course of the next four or five hours, I would come to appreciate why the trail was called “The Staircase.” My body almost begged me to stop every step of the way. The straps on my pack dug into my soft shoulders. Heart pounding, I halted every two to three minutes and leaned forward with my hands on my knees to gulp in huge lungfulls of air. I wanted to just take my pack off and lie down, dead, but John would have none of it.
“C’mon, we can’t stop here. We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover. You’ll find it much easier if you keep moving. We’ll stop for a break up at the hut.”
Bloody hell! What am I doing here? What does this have to do with my job?
I felt so weak, and I took my anger out on John, blaming him for my predicament. I started to hate him, and cursed him for getting us into this as part of our course. “I bet he’s getting a real kick out of this,” I thought, nurturing the idea that he’d already shown a dislike for Chris and myself over our lack of interest in other parts of the curriculum. But I wasn’t the only one finding it hard. A couple of the others also wanted to go back.
“Nobody’s going back! We’re all in this together. There’s no one back at the campsite. They’re not picking us up until Friday at Falls Creek. It’s as simple as that.”
When it seemed like I couldn’t possibly go any farther, I raised my head from my sunken shoulders to see, not just a very steep hill in front of me, but a looming horizon. Somehow, we had reached the top. But I was in too much pain, both physical and emotional, to take any pleasure in the view. All I could do was savor the fact that we weren’t hiking uphill anymore. I had a quick glance around at the land lying far below. Then, before I had a chance to get my breath, we were off again. My feet screamed inside my desert boots. I’d thought they’d be ok for the trip. Now I was finding out the hard way that they were far from up to scratch, though the hiking was a bit more bearable with the main climb behind us. Still, I literally staggered into the Cleve Cole hut that afternoon.
Stepping gingerly around the camp, I felt ashamed of my weakness and avoided any conversation about the day’s events. I felt like an outsider, that the others were worried I might hold up the trip and we’d be hiking well into the weekend. Everybody had complained during the course of the day, but I didn’t think they were moaning about it as much as I was. I really felt like I was letting the side down, and was angry with myself for being unfit, so piss-weak.
The next day’s hike, though not as steep, was not much easier. (The second day on any hike, I later learned, is usually harder than the first because the muscles that have been introduced to a new activity are now busy trying to recover.) I still felt like I’d been hit by a truck, but at least I didn’t complain to the point of wanting to go home.
That night, instead of setting up in one camp as we had previously, John had something else in mind. Each of us was sent in a different direction from home base, at least a couple of hundred meters (600 feet) away, with a box of matches, flour, a water bottle, and the warmest clothes we had.
“Now, I don’t want to see you guys again until morning. Make sure you follow your bearings if you leave your camp to get water, which I suggest you do. And don’t cop out and go and visit someone else’s camp. This is just for one night. I’m sure you’ll be able to handle it.”
As I lay next to my fire alone that night, I felt my strength begin to grow. I may not have been fit enough for the most challenging stretches of the hike, but I was relying on a skill that would serve me well in the future: the ability to keep myself together, to not panic when removed from the routine of everyday life. I knew that all I had to do was collect enough firewood to keep the fire going for the night and I’d be ok. I cooked myself a couple of rounds of damper (Australian bush bread), then fell asleep satisfied, with a full stomach, only to be woken by the dying fire. Feeding it back into life, I gazed up at the stars and for the first time imagined myself floating upward, trying to gain some perspective on my little camp on this mountain, what it must look like from above. Then, from further away, I zoomed up to see where the mountain fit into things in relation to the city far away—and where that city fit in, trying to comprehend my place on the earth itself. (Try it. It’s a fairly astounding experience.)
It felt so liberating to be outside under a blanket of stars, instead of cocooned safely inside a concrete suburban box. Although I felt vulnerable and exposed, I still felt so much stronger for being able to do it. I don’t need that roof over my head to feel safe and secure. I felt safe and secure within myself, and that made my skin crawl with excitement. Filled with a sense of wonder at the powerful reality of it all, I was at peace with the world for the first time in my life.
I learned a lot about myself that night. I realized that I wasn’t weak. Unfit, yes; but I could change that (and I did, as soon as I got back to the city, joining a gym and starting a fitness program, looking after myself more than I had been). What was important was that I’d begun the expansion of my comfort zone.
It was with great satisfaction that I walked back into camp the next morning. Some of the other guys hadn’t lasted the night alone, and had returned to their tents before dawn. I couldn’t understand why they could not go through with it. Was it because they couldn’t stand their own company? Could they have been so afraid of the dark that they had to return to the safety of John’s camp?
Of course, male bravado prevented any real explanations being offered; rather, what was put forward was, “My fire kept going out,” or, “I ran out of water.” I couldn’t help wondering what they would have done if they had been in the same situation without the escape hatch: lain down and died? I felt a lot better about myself now, and about my part in the team—like I had proven myself. I began to appreciate our expedition from that point on. Some parts of the hike got harder, but I used the knowledge I gained that night—that I wasn’t weak, that I could do anything—to push myself on. I even started to enjoy the challenges. At one point, high on a ridge, I looked back in amazement as John pointed to where we’d come from just that morning. It was so far away, I scarcely believed him.
I hiked out of the bush two days later very sore and extremely tired, but with such a sense of achievement. We’d covered about 40 kilometers (24 miles) over three days, into a place relatively few people had been. Still, it wasn’t until 12 months later, when I had the urge to do it all again, that I realized those few days had set me on a new course. For the first time I was aware that we are all stronger than we can possibly imagine, and that that strength is gained from pushing beyond what is known, what is comfortable.