Half full or half empty

Perspective. It’s what makes the difference between coping well with misfortune, or falling apart. It determines whether we’re happy with what we have, or always wanting something more. It can turn an event into a huge stressor or a minor bump in the road.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, perspective is everything.

The hurricane barely affected me – a cancelled flight and a messy yard. But the devastation and loss elsewhere is on a scale that is almost overwhelming. Yet, even some of the hardest hit people are able to put their situations in perspective, like the man I saw quoted in the newspaper who had no power and was waiting in a gas line, but was grateful that he didn’t lose anything more; or the people who lost their homes and all their possessions, but were happy they didn’t lose their lives or their families.

It’s the meaning we give to events that makes them more or less stressful to us. Our ability to reframe a situation, to view it more positively, is affected by our personality type, by overall wellness, and often, by something called “hardiness”.

The term hardiness, and the idea of a “hardy” personality, came out of research done back in the 1980s with the breakup of the Bell Telephone companies. Dr. Salvatore Maddi did a long-term study of telephone company employees to find out how they dealt with the stress of job loss or change. What he found was that hardiness was a determinant of how resilient people were in the face of stress, whether they were able not just to survive, but to thrive.

The people he designated as “hardy” had three important beliefs that helped them during adversity: an attitude of commitment that drove them to be involved in events rather than isolated; an attitude of control, which helped them work to influence the outcome of events, instead of passively accepting them; and an attitude of challenge which motivated them to look at the unexpected changes as an opportunity to learn.

So when we see neighbors helping each other after the storm, we are witnessing a form of commitment. When we see people taking out their own chain saws and cutting up downed trees, opening up fire hydrants for water, or walking miles to work, we see them taking control of the outcome. And when we see people hoisting water up to an 8th story window by ropes, cooking dinner on their outdoor grills, or huddling around a satellite TV truck to pick up a WiFi signal, we see that they are accepting the challenge of the situation and learning new ways to get the things they need.

We can’t forget, however, that some of the hardest-hit people did not come into this situation with a great deal of resilience or wellness. They were barely surviving as it was, because of economic uncertainty, poor health, or both. For them, and for people who suffered the most devastating losses, their emotional and physical reserves will be exhausted quickly. I’m gratified by how quickly power is being restored in some areas, but there are other places, and many people, who will need our help for a very long time.

The American Psychological Association has some guidelines on their web site for dealing with traumatic stress, such as after a disaster. Many of them come from the research on hardiness and resilience. The American Red Cross, in addition to providing for physical needs, also provides emotional assistance to people affected by the disaster. Please consider making a donation to them.

Well, we all need someone we can lean on, And if you want it, well, you can lean on me.”   (Keith Richards, Let It Bleed)