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America's Resilience

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WebMD Health News

Oct. 12, 2001 -- In a dark new age of insecurity, one great character strength shines bright. We see it in the rescue workers sifting the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We see it in the lines at the Red Cross as we wait to give blood. It's called resilience.

"Resilience is the capacity to find new and creative ways to assert life despite great trauma and obstacles," psychologist Bernhard Kempler, PhD, tells WebMD. Kempler should know. As a Jewish child, he became separated from his parents and wandered homeless in war-torn Europe. Eventually he was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. He survived -- and grew stronger because of it.

It's not that people like Kempler are immune to trauma. His secret, and that of many, many others, is that he's resilient.

"It is not helpful to think of some people as invulnerable -- as if anybody escapes life without wounds and scars," family psychiatrist Steven J. Wolin, MD, tells WebMD. "We all die; we all have loved ones get ill. Resilience is the process of persevering in the face of hardship. It is a common thing. It doesn't belong to just a small narrow group."

Wolin, clinical professor of psychiatry and director of family therapy training at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is co-author of The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity. He says resilience has seven components: morality, relationships, initiative, independence, humor, creativity, and insight. (There is more information on this concept at his web site, projectresilience.com.) In the current crisis, he finds morality and relationships to be the most important resiliencies.

"Morality is the desire to do a good thing for someone -- to do the right thing," Wolin says. "That desire to provide service is the greatest resilience we have. We have the ability to do acts of goodness, to feel good in the face of evil. Initiative and morality; go together. The way you express morality -- the way you solve problems -- is to take the initiative."

Kempler makes the same point. "To support other people and to help in whatever way one can help: that, I think, has a lot to do with resilience," he says. "Not feeling helpless, having a meaningful thing you can do, is an important part of resilience"

Another resilience is the ability to share relationships with other people.

"One of the few good things that have come out of this disaster is that everybody is talking more to people they know and love -- even to strangers -- and there is this desire to hug people," Wolin says. Everybody is talking about how important the people they care about are. From this need, a real strength is arising. We can all see that strength working as a resilient process."

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