An Unexpected Hanukah Gift: Resilience

I Would Rather Light One Candle

I find the lighting of the Hanukah Menorah misleading. On each Chanukah night, we add a candle to the Hanukiah. Each additional candle represents the miracle of a tiny untainted oil flask lasting eight days of purification. But suppose you were to enter the Temple on any of those eight days, what would you have seen? You would have witnessed that same flask burning at any given moment. Unlike our tradition, no one added a flask each day. There were never eight flasks. Then what was so miraculous? The miracle consisted of the resilience of that small light. Even more, the miracle could have been noticed only by looking at the candle long enough. The power of the Hanukah light did not reside in its brightness but in its endurance. Hanuka, thus, celebrates the miracle of finding a never-ending vitality when we feel depleted of energy.  

If I were allowed to design Hanuka again, I would suggest the tradition of lighting one huge candle lasting for eight days. Children would wake up in the morning and run to see if the flame was still burning. They would learn that within them lies an inextinguishable energy that defies logical constraints. The lifelong gift of Hanuka, resilience, would shine in those unavoidable moments we feel so frail.

The Gift of the Ordinary

Hanuka is the holiday of resilience. Inspired by the rebellious spirit of the Maccabees, we infuse ourselves with an invincible force on this holiday. We realize that the miracle of life resides in the fact that we persist on our journey. The commitment to our existence becomes a miracle. No fireworks. No giant balloon. We stop to celebrate the ordinary rhythm of day after day as the most precious gift.         

But What is Resilience?

I woke up last Monday, December 15, and drove to Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle for a workshop on trauma. Dr. Bonanno, Director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University, shared his latest research on resilience with an interfaith clergy group. His over 30 decades of research on resilience are now available in his recent, “The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience is Changing How We Think about PTSD.”

One statistic that Dr. Bonano emphasized impressed me. Exposed to trauma, an average of 65 % of people show resilience. Resilience, thus, is a common trait in us. We are stronger than what we think. As Dr. Bonano writes, faced with trauma, “resilience was the norm.” (page 96).

Based on this study, the strength we encourage in others and ourselves during troubling times is not wishful thinking. We must assume each other’s capability. Our task is to activate our mutual resilience. We must motivate others to find their strength. In our eyes, those suffering should not be defenseless victims but owners of their life.  

Well, It Is Not So Crazy to Talk to Yourself

Some characteristics of resilient people mentioned by Dr. Bonanno are: they seek support from others, are optimistic, believe in their ability to cope, and instead of searching for explanations, focus on problem-solving.

A technique Dr. Bonano highlighted in fostering resilience is positive “self-talk. Some of the examples given by Dr. Bonanno are telling ourselves, “The future will be okay,” or “I have the skills to get the job done.”  Specifically, on optimism, Dr. Bonanno shared the following self-talk, “this will pass. It may not turn out exactly as I want it to, but I will be fine. Everything will work out. Life goes on, and it will be fine.” To bust self-confidence, we should tell ourselves, “I have the skills, I can do it. I can cope with this. I can handle it. I can solve most problems. I can usually find a solution.”

We must become the Maccabees of our life. Faced with the mighty Greek army, I imagine Mattathias saying to himself, “we, the Jews, have many times been in similar situations, and we have prevailed. We can do it again.” The lasting candle was a reflection of their resilience.  

The self-talk technique includes talking about the self in the third person, “Shlomo, you can.” This technique is known as “distanced self-talk.” This third-person talk provides perspective and diminishes anxiety. We become the object of our thoughts rather than victims of the circumstances.

Self-talk can be proactive. For instance, “Sarah, what is happening?” “What does Sarah need to do?” What is Sarah able to do?” This questioning moves us from paralysis into praxis.

Your Hanuka Gift  

This Hannukah, write yourself a card about your strength. Tell those facing an illness or feeling broken that you believe in them. Tell them that they are a living Hanuka Menorah. Affirm that within their fragility lies an eternal flame. Make them your Maccabees. Bet all your Hanukkah gelt on them.

Like a dreidel, we can spin and generate energy standing at one solid point, our inner flame. And when we fall, we spin again. We are resilient.

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