Anatomy of a Rebound
"If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving."
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
In late August of 2009, I was blessed with a powerfully disturbing experience, an adverse event that challenged my patience, my endurance and my exuberance.
My original plan was to fly from Seattle to London to teach a weekend seminar on exuberant health and play-based fitness in partnership with WildFitness. All was well until I arrived in London and approached the Heathrow airport immigration counter. The officer checked my passport and told me that I lacked an obscure but essential legal document and that I would be detained for further investigation.
At first, I had no worries. Surely the authorities would see that I was a mere innocent, a physical educator with no nefarious motives. All I wanted was give a slide show, lead some movement games, walk around London a bit and go home. Once they looked into the matter, they would surely find my story credible and let me go my way.
But the authorities were unconvinced. They investigated my story, but remained unsatisfied. So I was escorted into a back room, searched, held in a lockup for 6 hours, interrogated and finally escorted onto a flight back to the states. Before I could say "Buckingham Palace," I was back in New York and then off to Seattle.
My entire mission was destroyed, my hopes for a great event dashed. Weeks and months of preparation were wasted, as was a substantial investment in airfare, hotels and related gear. Within a few brief hours, I went from being an exuberant health activist to an international outlaw and border crasher.
In the annals of human catastrophe, it wasn’t a true disaster of course. My life wasn’t threatened and I didn’t suffer extreme abuse or physical hardship. I still have a place to live, food to eat and friends to play with. Nevertheless, it was a powerfully upsetting experience that I would not care to repeat.
By all rational calculations, I should have been angry, distraught and just plain pissed off. After all, I had good reason. I was treated unfairly and rudely. The experience might well have been a blow to my disposition and my spirit; it might have derailed me for weeks. I might have become depressed or I might have wasted a lot of time trying to strike back at the powers in question.
But none of those things happened. Instead, my training paid off. I bounced back from the adversity in remarkably short order. Within a day or so, I was back to my quest, plotting my objectives and fleshing out my Plan B. Aside from the physical exhaustion of a nearly continuous Seattle-London-Seattle flight, I arrived home in a surprisingly balanced frame of mind. Sure, the trip had been a catastrophe, but somehow, I managed to maintain most of my equilibrium and in the process, I began to understand some of the elements that go into a successful rebound.
things fall apart
The whole process begins when life deals a surprise blow, an insult or a tragedy. An asteroid falls into your life and your most cherished ideas, beliefs and dreams are smashed to pieces. A divorce, a death, a job loss, an immigration fiasco; we’ve all had our share.
In the early moments, you’re flooded with raw reaction and primal emotion. You scramble to make things right, but your predicament is bigger than you are and events are beyond your control. At this point, you are shocked, traumatized and stressed.
As the catastrophe begins to sink in, your limbic system leaps into action. The fight-flight response goes into overdrive and stress hormones flood your bloodstream. Your emotional brain fires up and keeps on firing with a flood of anger, remorse, hatred, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. But it’s all to no avail. Your world is crumbling before your eyes and you are powerless to stop or even steer the course of events.
Eventually, the immediate threat and emotional reaction begin to subside, but now the mind steps in to review and replay the event. You call up the most impressive images, sensations and emotions. You relive the entire experience, over and over and over.
In many cases, we get stuck at this point, as our minds play back an endless loop of reruns. Over and over we rehash the event, retrieving the most disturbing moments from memory and solidifying their neural base. This replay process is perfectly normal, natural and healthy, but only for so long. When memories are retrieved, they become stronger and begin to take on a disproportionate life of their own. The more we rerun the event, the more real it becomes to us.
tell the story
Sometime later, we begin to translate our emotional experience into words and in the process, we start to tell a story to ourselves and to others. We may not think of it as a story in the classical, once-upon-a-time sense, but it’s still a narrative, an explanation of what went wrong. There are characters, events and tone, but most of all, there’s causality and responsibility, an explanation that helps us put our experience in order. Emotion will still play a part, but now our experience is mediated and expressed in words, paragraphs, chapters and volumes.
Our stories can help us rebound, but success depends in large measure on the tone and character of our narrative, our explanatory style. Cognitive psychologists have studied explanatory styles in detail and have discovered some intriguing and powerful patterns.
The most notorious is the depressive explanatory style. This kind of narrative is marked by statements that are personal ("It’s all my fault."), pervasive ("I always screw things up.") and permanent. ("I’ll never be any good at this.") People who tell stories in this style are prone to ineffectiveness and depression. After all, if things are always my fault and will be so forever, what’s the point in trying to change? Our language sculpts our spirit, our behavior and our ability to rebound. If I had used this sort of explanatory style in telling my story to myself or others, I would still be in a state of depressive stress. My rebound would have been weak or non-existent.
In contrast, the optimistic explanatory style tends to be transient ("This thing is temporary. It will all be over eventually."), controllable ("There are things I can do about this.") and specific ("It was a really stupid situation, but it was a freak, one-off event.") People who tell stories in this optimistic style tend to be more effective and resilient. Their language gives them a sense of control and possibility.
Unfortunately, many of us settle into a single explanatory style in early adulthood and stick with it throughout life, thus perpetuating patterns of reactivity and ineffectiveness. The danger comes when we get stuck on one level of explanation, one style of language or one level of abstraction. Our self-talk solidifies into a single point of view, a single flow of causality and a single tone with recurring themes. Static narration leads to static behavior and spirit; we become stuck.
The key to a successful rebound is to get some movement into our words and our narratives. Don’t bore yourself or your audience. Keep your language mobile and dancing. If you’re stuck, it might be because your language is stuck. Play with your words and see if things don’t go a little better. Describe your predicament from several vantage points and see what you like. If you’re not getting the result you want, tell a new story from a fresh perspective. This may challenge your beliefs about the true nature of the event, but stories are free and it will cost you nothing to entertain some new ideas.
"this will make a great story"
For me, the key rebounding moment came in a phone conversation to a good friend on my return to the States. I struggled to explain the fiasco to her, trying to capture the essential nature of the farce. Finally I concluded, "This will make a great story someday. Not yet. But someday." And suddenly, I felt liberated from the grip of my predicament. I knew that sometime in the future, I would be telling my story and laughing at the absurdity of it all. But if I was going to be laughing about this event a year from now, why not next week? And if next week, why not right now? I laughed at this realization. Things really weren’t so bad after all.
My rebound also hinged on a couple of key questions that helped me reinterpret my experience. The first - "Where’s the compassion?" proved extremely powerful for me, right in the midst of my interrogation. As I sat in a small room, on a chair bolted to the floor, I observed my immigration agent as she pored through my documents, casting a suspicious eye on my health-related papers and books. "Did you write this?" she glared, as if I was trafficking in national secrets. My mind reeled at the absurdity of the question, but after a moment, I began to think about her predicament. "What a shitty job she has, with such slavery to rules and bureaucracy" I mused. "She has to dig into people’s lives all day, treating everyone she meets like a proto-criminal." Suddenly, I was seeing things from her perspective. "This poor woman. I wonder what her life is like outside of this interrogation room. I wonder who her husband is and how they live. How very sad." Suddenly, I felt that she, not I, was the real victim of this preposterous system. This insight was profoundly relaxing. No matter what happened that day, I would eventually go home and back to a meaningful and creative life, but she had to live inside this Kafkian madness every day. Compared to her predicament, mine was a cakewalk.
A second question also helped me survive and rebound - "Where’s the comedy?" This was easy because my situation was saturated with hilarious material. I could just see the headline in the morning papers: "UK immigration officials keep country safe from threat of health advocacy and exuberant movement." And that was just the beginning. Every detail of the event was ripe for comedic interpretation and even now I can hardly keep from laughing. Fortunately, I managed to keep my mouth shut during questioning. Laughter does not go over well with grim, highly-stressed law enforcement officers.
Like all good rebounds, my experience included some powerful social support. Even as I faced the reality of deportation and another endless flight across the Atlantic and North America (and another round of semi-edible food-like substances), I knew that I would soon have some great phone conversations with friends and family. The story would be a howler and people would get behind me as I told them of my plight. It also helped enormously to have the WildFitness team in my corner; I later learned that Tara Wood and Edward Drax had done some truly heroic pleading with the authorities. I was not alone in my plight.
I also got a bounce from the knowledge that I would ultimately have a voice in the midst of it all. As soon I was loaded aboard the flight back to the US, I began taking notes, sketching out my experience in the margin of a book. I knew that I would tell this story in one form or another and that realization gave me power. Even a blog post would get my words out. In other words, I was not helpless.
Finally, I realized that resilience often comes down to a simple matter of prior experience or what my sensei used to call "time on the mat." I’ve been blessed with some wonderful adversities in my years and I’ve learned that I always manage to come back. All of us suffer through traumatic events, but things eventually run their course. The body calms down, rebuilds and relaxes its vigilance. Systems return to normal. If you’ve been around the block (or the planet) a few times, you know how the process works and you begin to incorporate resilience into your very sense of identity: "I’ve rebounded before, I’ll rebound again. I can weather this."
So, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. In the process, I’ve come to realize that if we want our training to be truly holistic, it’s essential that we become students of rebounding. After all, life is filled with capricious immigration officers and other jokers in the deck. We can’t predict everything that they'll do, but we can learn how to bounce back from their trickery.
And whatever you do, make sure that you get all the obscure paperwork in order before you approach the immigration counter at Heathrow airport. And please don’t mention my name. It won’t help you a bit.
Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD.
Opening Up: The Healing Power of Emotions by James Pennebaker PhD.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, PhD.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron