We all face adversity to different degrees throughout our lives. Some of these experiences are small and easily managed, while others are quite substantial and profoundly life-changing. Indeed it is how we face and embrace them that shapes our lives and makes us who we are. These adverse experiences may originate from tragedy, trauma, surgery, loss, or any other hardship. The usual response we receive from friends, family, and even strangers who witness our hardships, is the conveyance of advice, of which the most common is to stay strong and to be resilient. While the gesture of advice is generally given out of kindness, perhaps it is also out of a loss for words, insecurities, or fears driven by discomfort and the desire to distance oneself from a difficult conversation. These pieces of seemingly quipped advice always brought to my mind, “What does being resilient mean?” Does “being resilient,” mean not experiencing any of the pain or remorse I had by blocking out the overwhelming feelings? Does it just mean not outwardly expressing tears, anger, fear, or distress?
How do we become resilient and at the same time face the adversity we are dealt through trauma? There are the questions that creep into your mind, “What do I do now?”, or “how am I supposed to move on?” After an isolated incident, or one single life changing moment, life goes on while taking us in a whole other direction. At some point in time we are forced to move on as the clock ticks into the next day and responsibilities take over. These include jobs, school, kids, and all other priorities. Many people’s approach to moving on and living up to what is requested of them is to push forward, to be strong, and not to let the past be your reality; to get over it and not let it define you. This seems to be the most common societal view of resilience. For a period of time I carried this approach, but now I would suggest a different view.
I was told to stay strong at a very young age. In 2003, at the age of 6, on Halloween, my costume ignited after a strand of it brushed by a jack o’lantern. I received second and third degree burns on my left hand and chin. Following the incident I was on life support for 3 days and was hospitalized for 1 month. I heard adults tell my parents how strong I was. I heard people tell me how strong I was. Even at such a young age, the question of what being strong truly meant overwhelmed my mind. The physical pain and scars were severe but no more so than the invisible and emotional impact. Being 6 years old with second and third degree burns, I was in new emotional territory and it was terrifying. The more I fought feelings of distress or fear the more present they became. What did being strong mean when the pain was present either way? Then, at a point in time the reality set in that the only way out was through.
Once I was home, back in school, and back on life’s track, my attitude toward this accident was to move on and push forward from the hard feelings of fear and helplessness I experienced. No matter what ball was thrown my way, I would catch it and keep going forward not looking back. This was how I was managing my life, that is until February of 2014 at a conference for burn victims. Here, I came face to face with the nurse assigned to my care in the burn unit during my childhood hospitalization. I had not seen her in about a decade. This wonderful nurse had been with me at every step during my hospitalization. Seeing her for the first time in years was mind blowing. I was overwhelmed with the familiar feelings of discomfort and distress that I had not even recognized for years. Talking to her had me feeling like I was back on my hospital bed once again. This came to show me how much my past was still with me. The realization set in that since being burned, for my whole life had been focused on what was in front of me, coming at me, and I never took the time to look backwards and understand where I had come from and the events that shaped me into who I am today.
This insightful experience provided me with a renewed personal philosophy: I could look forward and push through hard times, and this did not mean letting go of, getting over the past, or forgetting where I came from and what I had been through. I found if you don’t honor your past, you are left in a foreign environment that leaves you wondering how you got there.
Post December 14, 2012 a strong vocal sentiment arose in Newtown to the response of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to not be defined as the town that suffered this terrible tragedy. The fact of the matter is, the past can’t and never will be changed. The shooting left many of us internally scarred and although scars fade, they do not disappear. The path we leave behind is engraved into our lives but the direction we take onward is fully in our power. When I meet people of all ages from around the country, the questions of, “What is it like living in Newtown?” and “Where were you the day of the shooting?” are unavoidable. What is in my power, is to explain how I and many of my peers have become catalysts for positive changes all over the country, and that I am proud to be a part of this change.
After a tragedy we are left to decide the road we take as life continues. Through my own experiences I have found resilience to be facing life head on, feeling the emotions that are meant to be felt, pushing into and shaping the future, and yet never forgetting where I came from and what has made me into the soul I am today. In other words, resilience is not moving on despite your past, but blooming into a new person because of it. The people of Newtown have made strong efforts to provide this type of help with programs at the Resiliency Center, and by developing a social and emotional leadership program called the Spark Initiative. These therapeutic programs help a person to recognize and cope with the past while at the same time come up with individualized approaches so each person can find a path forward, becoming stronger. I hope to see Newtown continue honoring, funding, and creating these programs so we can tangibly move into the future that awaits us all. I hope we do so in a way that does not negate our tragic past, but rather embraces it and serves as the motivation for a greater future. I am, in part, defined by the tragic events of 12/14, but it is how I respond that defines the future.
— Cary DeYoung