Resilience: Poise Under Pressure

My best friend is away this week undergoing some obscene psychological test in which she will be fake kidnapped and in real life have to trek through mountains with little food and no sleep and a bunch of soldiers at her back just so they can test her resilience. When I talked to her last week, she wasn’t worried about it. She’d lived in Afghanistan for five years, been around bombings and her acquaintances there have been assassinated and though some of that stuff shook her up at the time, she’s kept going back.

It’s a test of that new buzzword in Germany — resilience — and it’s one I’m sure my friend will pass with flying colors. Her issues are not issues brought on by hunger or lack of sleep or too much exercise and her mental health is more stable than that of anyone I have ever known. Her worries are far beyond those that will arise on this weeklong adventure.

A couple years ago, I met a guy who ran these tests — they’re common for development workers and conflict reporters — and he said he was always surprised by the people who cracked and the things that made them crack. The toughest looking guy might only endure two days before using the safe word while the smallest and frailest would be the most psychologically sound after a week spent shivering, despite getting physically ill from the lack of food. The test, he said, brought out some issues in people that they themselves didn’t even know existed and was a good barometer for testing who could handle the difficulties of living in a developing country or war zone. You get a score at the end of the week and that determines what kind of placement you can get — hardship conditions and all.

Ever since I heard about this test, I was curious about what kind of score I would get. I once got mugged and fended off the muggers with my bare hands. Usually, faced with some sort of difficulty, I am the first to stand up and create an action plan and get ‘er done as they say. But this test… I don’t know. I can handle a night or two without sleep. I took care of a newborn by myself, got through the year-long phase of no sleep. Combined with a lack of food? I think I would get unbearable. Or maybe not. Maybe in a foreign, developing, country, where my basic survival needs were not being met, my mental state of affairs would be a completely different story.

In the book, “Brief an Mein Leben,” a former German speechwriter talks about her stay in a clinic in the Allgau after having a breakdown that she attributes to Burn Out. One of her assignments as part of the inpatient program is to stay awake for 48 hours. She does so and finds herself gorging on food she would never otherwise eat and gets really excited about it — precisely the reason her doctor has prescribed this. I can’t remember the explanation but it’s something like, if you stay awake long enough, you strip away all of the societal barriers and those sub-conscious things that are ruling your life and you get to know yourself and your needs/primal urges better so that you may, as part of your healing process, focus on them. It’s these primal urges that Maslov said are the basis of our self-actualization pyramid. When they falter, everything else does, too.


The idea is interesting to me: bringing all that psychological nonsense going on beneath the surface to the top so you can recognize your core physiological issues while also maybe figuring out your purpose — that thing that makes you endure all the stress and still wake up the next day ready for more. If you strip away all the societal norms, what are you living for?

Right before my friend left for her adventure, we met up for a lunch that left us both in tears. Not because of the insanity that she was about to endure. But because of the mundanity of our everyday lives and the bullshit stress that is a part of it.  Because we both know the things that we want to live for but can’t strip away all those societal norms or find a way for our dreams to conform to them. We know we can endure even in the face of the most absurd psychological stress and yet it’s this every day bullshit that is unbearable. I didn’t need to march barefoot through the mountains to know that.


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