Column entry: Cultivating Resilience and Adapting to Stress
Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.
Cultivating Resilience and Adapting to Stress
How do you cope with family stress? Positive events such as traveling internationally or planning a surprise 50th wedding anniversary party can be stressful, but we most often think of negative events as stress-inducing. Your sister is struggling with depression. Your spouse loses his job. Your parents are divorcing. How can we build resilience and adapt to stress in ways that draw us closer as a family? To God? Let’s consider these questions by starting with a story of resilience from the Bible: Ruth.
Ruth experienced a particularly stressful time in her life, and overcame it. Her husband dies. Her brother-in-law dies. To cope, her mother-in-law Naomi decides to return to her home land. Ruth was faced with her own difficult decision about how to cope: return to her people in Moab or join her mother-in-law on an international journey to a place she’s never been to live as an immigrant in a culture within which she’s never been immersed. Ultimately, Ruth decides to embrace the change and make a total commitment to a new way of life. She tells Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Despite her ardent commitment, Ruth’s baptism into Jewish culture is difficult. Many of the Jewish people were prejudiced against her Moabite heritage. Plus, many probably saw her deceased husband as a traitor who disobeyed God’s command (Deut. 23:2-6). She is poor, too, and has to glean from the fields in order to survive. In a dramatic turn, she is grafted into the people of God through marriage to a kinsman-redeemer, Boaz. He covers Ruth and Naomi with protection and restores their land, inheritance, financial security, and family line.
Many of the same stressors Ruth experienced persist today: death of loved ones, financial hardship, relocation, isolation, prejudice. Coping is not easy. Communication scholar Patrice Buzzanell identifies some very practical communication processes for coping. We illustrate these with examples from Ruth’s story.
- Affirm identity anchors. We can remind each other who they are for and who they are in relation to each other. Ruth did this by resolving her new identity as a follower of Naomi’s God. We too can anchor our identity as Jesus people or Christ followers during times of adversity and crisis.
- Maintain and use communication networks. This involves building communities (e.g., family, church, work, and civic groups) that we can rely on during rough times. Ruth and Naomi drew on a community resource of gleaning the harvest. Naomi also counseled Ruth to intentionally reach out to Boaz as a kinsman redeemer. Today, we can draw on support networks for practical help (e.g., a meal train), emotional support (e.g., a listening ear to vent frustrations), or advice from pastors or mentors who have gone through similar events.
- Craft normalcy. There wasn’t much about Ruth’s life that must have felt normal during her upheaval, but scholars recommend that keeping daily routines going the best you can is an effective coping strategy.
- Put alternative logics to work. Alternative logics include developing new or different practices and routines during a crisis, and these Ruth must have done in abundance. She gleaned from the harvest. She took over care for her mother-in-law. She began integrating into the broader Bethlehem and Jewish community. Today, there are also abundant alternative logics. A family experiencing financial strain, for example, might opt for a much less expensive “staycation” as an alternative to a high-cost vacation.
- Legitimize negative feelings while foregrounding productive actions. In the face of life’s stressors, it can be normal to feel sad, upset, frustrated, confused or at a loss. It is not healthy to completely ignore these feelings. Neither is it good, however, to ruminate on them, either. There is a difference between acknowledging our emotions and letting them drive our decisions or actions. Striking a balance can be difficult. One strategy we see Ruth use to navigate this tension is to serve others. She did this when she went to work in the field, always remembering Naomi and ensuring she had enough for her mother-in-law.
- Develop shared narratives. How we think about and talk about our situations is powerful. It might have been understandable if Ruth focused on the difficulties she faced, but instead she embraced a resilient perspective. Creating shared narratives about who we are and how we face challenges can shape our own stories of resilience.
We still learn from Ruth’s story today. As theologian Alicia Besa Panganiban teaches, we learn from Ruth that resilience means deeply caring for others, belonging to a faith community, and boldly, actively following God. From her story we observe how the hand of God was working all things together for good, weaving the grand theme of redemption and restoration through Ruth’s biography and lineage as one of the women listed in the ancestry of the Messiah.
In addition to communication strategies, Priest Christopher Krall offers faith-based strategies that create resilience.
First, resilience comes from hope. Krall focuses attention on hoping for environments where all can feel safe and thrive, a world conducive to human flourishing. Hoping for a better life and circumstances undoubtedly breeds resilience.
A second strategy for resilience-building is contemplation. Families might spend time considering their immediate and ultimate life purposes. Krall argues: “People holding a faith-based perspective adapt to and endure stress greater than those who are overwhelmed by stress, who think they have no choice but to keep swimming through life’s challenges with their own strength or who have no concept of the meaning or purpose of their lives.”
Third, resilient people do not isolate themselves but draw strength and hope from others. As Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 reminds us, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Finally, resilience is enhanced by prayer. Prayer not only shifts our own perspectives, aligning them with God’s (e.g., Eph. 1:18–19), but also mobilizes things in the spiritual and natural realms.
Stress is an inescapable part of life and facing life’s challenges is not easy. However, we can learn strategies for managing stress well and build family resilience. How are you and your family building resilience?
Thank you for joining the conversation.
—Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski
* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues from a Christian perspective. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda.
Christopher Krall, “‘Resilient Faithfulness’: A Dynamic Dialectic between the Transcendent and Physical Dimensions of the Human Person,” Journal of Moral Theology 9, no. 1 (2020): 168–189.
Kristen Lucas and Patrice Buzzanell, “Memorable Messages of Hard Times: Constructing Short- and Long-Term Resiliencies through Family Communication,” Journal of Family Communication 12, no. 3 (2012): 189–208.
Alicia Besa Panganiban, “Theology of Resilience amidst Vulnerability in the Book of Ruth,” Feminist Theology 28, no. 2 (2020): 182–97.