Love makes you resilient

John 20: 11-18

For more than a decade, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and her graduate students at the UNC have been studying the habits of resilient people, people who can adapt to changing environments especially situations that hit like emotional storms.  Dr. Fredrickson and a team of researchers focus on average people who have the ability bounce back from such situations better than before.  Healthier, wiser, closer to others, more accepting of themselves and more realistic about life in general.

Resilient people who bounce back like Mary Magdalene did.  At the beginning of the Gospel lesson she is in an emotional storm, crying her eyes out, accusing people of doing horrible things.  At the end of the Gospel lesson she is joyfully sharing good news with the disciples.  Something happened in between those two scenes that made Mary more resilient.  

Dr. Fredrickson wants to understand what helps people to rebound, ward off depression, and continue to grow, and she uses the science of psychology to discover the secret to resiliency.  I use the teachings of Christianity to account for human resiliency.  When I compare the science of resiliency with religion, I see some similarities.

Would it surprise you to know that Dr. Fredrickson’s research shows that increases in material wealth and improvements in living circumstances did not predict resiliency? (“Happiness Unpacked,” cited in Love 2.0).  Just getting an increase in income or a nicer home did not make a person better able to recover from negative experiences.

Avoiding negative emotions also did not help people become more resilient.  In one experiment, researchers asked people to keep track of how many positive and negative emotions they experienced over a 28-day period.  At the end of every day the research participants log on to a website and reported whether or not they had experienced amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, gratitude, hope, interest, joy, love, and accomplishment during that day.  They were also asked to note any experiences of anger, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, fear, guilt, sadness, and shame.

The people who reported having both positive and negative experiences showed an increase in resiliency over the course of the trial period.  Those who reported positive emotions and only a few negative emotions did not become more resilient.

Psychological experiments like this one on resiliency and others have led Dr. Fredrickson to the conclusion that an ability to infuse a painful situation with positive emotions is one of the habits of resilient people.

The more a person could talk about their suffering as well as their reason for hope and hold on to both at once, the more resilient that person became over time.  Even a simple saying such as “This too shall pass,” or “I’m not in this alone” was enough to remind these resilient people that there was hope despite the difficulties they were experiencing in the moment.  

Hope, that is what enabled Mary Magdalene to rebound from devastating grief.

Jesus was standing right in front of her and she didn’t recognize him, an indication of how deeply she was effected by Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Mary is distraught, inconsolable, and in this frame of mind she fears that the worst has happened, she suspects the worst of others.  They have stolen Jesus’ body and have hidden it.  It’s a gruesome accusation, and it’s a false accusation.  I am not surprised that the stress of the past two days has her jumping to the wrong conclusions even as the truth is staring her in the face.

Mary’s recovery happens in stages.  The angels at the tomb show her compassion.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”  they ask her.  Angelic compassion gets her to open up a little and talk about her fears, but then she turns away from the positive emotion of compassionate love.

As she turns she sees Jesus, who also shows her compassion.  “Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?”  Mary responds to this divine compassion by accusing Jesus of moving his dead body.

Jesus doesn’t get defensive, he doesn’t try to reason with her, he doesn’t mock her.  He simply says her name, “Mary!”  Calling her by name causes Mary to realize that Jesus knows who she is, knows what she is going through, and knows who she needs to find.  In that moment, when she hears her name, that’s when she can see the truth and relief floods her soul.  She is overcome with joy and awe.

Positive emotions such as compassion, joy and awe literally open people’s eyes and broaden their capacity to respond to life situations.  That’s another secret to resiliency, according to Dr. Fredrickson.  People who experience even a momentary positive emotion have “wider visual search patterns, novel and creative thoughts and actions, more inclusive social groups, and more flexible goals and mindsets”.  This psychological jargon sounds like problem-solving skills to me.

This means that personal experiences of positive emotions can be a benefit to those around us when such experiences produce within us problem-solving skills that help us address family or community issues in creative and thoughtful ways.  Resilient individuals can help to create resilient communities (Love 2.0, 79-81).

So many rural communities are looking for leaders with problem-solving skills.  Half of all of the rural counties in the US reported population declines in 2012 . There was a time in the early 2000s when growth rates in urban and rural counties were similar (Rural America at a Glance, 2012 edition). Then the global recession hit and the housing market bubble burst.

Part of the population decline in rural counties was due to there being more deaths than births in those counties.  Part of the decline is due to the fact that people are leaving to look for employment in urban areas.  The severity of the recession, coupled with slow job growth during the recovery, has driven the long-term unemployment rate (the number of people who have been unemployed for more than 6 months expressed as a percentage of the labor force) to its highest level since the Great Depression.  Economic pressures have got people pulling up roots and re-locating.

“The Northeast, Great Lakes, and Corn Belt regions showed steadily declining annual population growth rates since 2000. Many [rural] counties in these regions have an aging population and continue to lose young adults through out-migration to nearby metro centers and Sun Belt destinations.”

Thirteen years of steady decline has got people in these rural counties feeling like they are standing in front of a tomb.  They are grieving the change they see happening in their small towns.

Only resilient people and resilient communities will be able to adapt to the changing global financial environment.

Community leaders who only focus on the positive and ignore the negative won’t help people become more resilient.  Neither will community leaders who only talk about ways to increase material wealth and improve living conditions.

Shared moments of amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, gratitude, hope, interest, joy, love, and accomplishment in the face of stagnant employment and population declines these positive emotions will build our resiliency.

And it is this conclusion, based on psychological research, that gets my attention because in a way the Church is in the positive emotion business.  We have two centuries of experience conducting worship services that offer people a chance to confess their negative emotions and share in a community moment of awe as they experience forgiveness and grace.  The Church offers opportunities for a community to share in acts of compassion.  The Church holds funeral services that assure a community that there is hope in the face of death.

Above all, the Church tells people the truth-- that Jesus calls each of us by name, he knows us, he knows what we are going through, he knows who we need to find.  After thirteen years of steady decline in the Corn Belt, I think folks here need this good news, need a weekly encounter with Christ.

After her encounter with the risen Lord, Mary Magdalene rebounds and she takes her joyful self and bounces all the way back to the disciples to give them the good news that they have reason to hope.  They don’t listen to her right away.  They don’t instantly become positive and hopeful.  But eventually they get there when they have their own encounter with Christ.

People probably won’t listen to us right away when we tell them that we have found reason to hope in Christ.   Try to stay calm.  Don’t get defensive.  Even when you are accused of being the root of the problem.  Continue to extend Christ’s compassion to them.  Assure the accuser that you know them, you know what they are going through, you know who they need to find.

This is the mission of the Church.  Other community organizations can offer venues for shared moments of positive emotions that can spark resilient social bonding.  Our library offers community amusement.  Our schools offer a sense of accomplishment.  Churches are the only institution that can infuse painful circumstances with divine compassion, everlasting joy and, eternal love in such a way that a moment of grace is experienced in community.

The Church is also the only institution that can teach people how to take what they experience in worship and apply it to their daily lives.  By doing things like this prayer exercise that you can try at home.  It’s based on Dr. Fredrickson’s research and designed to help you become more compassionate, which will in turn make you more resilient, which will then promote problem-solving skills that will benefit your family and community.

“Whenever pain, suffering, or any form of adversity weaves its way into your experience. . . . bring your full attention to your painful predicament” (Love. 2.0, 143) and remind yourself that Christ is with you, maybe you could imagine Christ putting a hand on your shoulder and calling you by name.

Next, “remind yourself that whatever you are now enduring is -- at this very moment-- being faced by others as well. . . . whether it’s physical pain, social injustice, uncertainty about your own or another’s health, a crushing influx of demands,” unemployment or community decline. “Take a step back from your own suffering and imagine yourself connected with others who suffer similarly.”

Finally, pray-- “God help me and all those who suffer [painful situation] find hope.”

We can start practicing right now.  Will you join me in a moment of silent prayer?