Matthew Johnstone, author and illustrator of The Little Book of Resilience, explores the importance of learning to bounce back from adversity, and how developing and maintaining resilience can help us overcome and learn from difficult life events.
When I was five I discovered a large beehive in a hole in a tree. I stirred that hive with a stick like you would a hearty stew while singing ‘hello bees! Hello bees!’ It was about then I discovered I was allergic to bees – but I survived.
When I was six I went to a friend’s place to play. His grandmother was babysitting. I asked her for something to drink; she gave me concentrated detergent. I was rushed to hospital but I survived.
When I was nine my brother and his friend put me in an old wool press. They thought they’d killed me and ran away, but I survived.
When I was twelve a friend and I had a duel at twenty paces with .22 calibre air rifles. We missed three times and ended up in a free-for-all. He shot me in the leg and I shot him at point blank range in the bum – we survived.
When I was nineteen I went to a fancy restaurant with my girlfriend. We had oysters for starters, lobster for main and I had a massive asthma attack and died. Thankfully my girlfriend was a nurse and I had ultimately collapsed outside a hospital. So once again I survived.
In 2001 I was standing a block from the World Trade Centre in New York when it came down. Like many others, I thought I was going to die but I survived.
In 2010 I was in my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand, when the 7.3 earthquake struck – by this stage I was shaken but not stirred.
On top of all this, for a decent chunk of my adult life I suffered the Black Dog of Depression – probably the worst experience of the lot – but came through that with a renewed passion for life.
When I tell people of these happenings, a nervous appearance comes over their faces and they look like they want to leave the room.
Some may think ‘how unlucky!’ but I feel quite the opposite. I feel incredibly fortunate; blessed even. I don’t greet each day with a ‘what the Hell’s going to happen today!?’ I greet each day as an opportunity to live my life fully.
Not all of my experiences have been easy but I do see them as the ultimate of life lessons and from each I have had an opportunity to grow, to learn, to hone my values and to put my energies into what’s working and what’s truly important. We each have our journey, we each have a story and when it comes to adversity, most of us have an incredible capacity to bounce back even if it looks impossible at the time. Major life events can change us but if we’re prepared to learn from them we can develop more meaning, we can become stronger, wiser and develop a deeper sense of purpose.
Since the first earthquake in Christchurch in 2010 there have been over 10,000 aftershocks, some of them massive. My mother said the one good thing to come out of the earthquakes is that it has forced everyone to slow down and as a result everyone has become a lot nicer. Sometimes adversity is the thing that brings us together. It brings out our compassion and a connectedness to one another. But I’d like to suggest we shouldn’t wait for a disaster to practice what makes us whole.
The Little Book of Resilience is about how we can fortify our lives mentally, emotionally and physically. It is not about what happens when we get knocked down but more about what happens when we get up again. It is a book about what resilience is and how we grow and maintain it.
The first step in understanding resilience is accepting what you can and cannot change. You can't change the weather but you can certainly change the way you interact with it; using an umbrella, a jacket or sunscreen. Just as you can't change your history, family, race, or past hurts and events but with the right direction and understanding you can certainly change how you look and feel about them moving forward.
Life doesn't always turn out as we'd expected. It can be complex, harsh, joyful, mean, hilarious and utterly perplexing. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we will be able to cope with whatever life throws our way.
For the majority of life's adversities, there is no magic pill or silver bullet - to get over anything we generally have to go through it - but if we're prepared to learn from that experience, good can certainly come from bad. We can grow to be wiser, more empathetic and understanding and from that we can create greater purpose in our lives.