Remember time. Life is long if you’re lucky. Don’t expect a graph line that always goes up. It won’t. No one’s life graph line goes up eternally. Prepare yourself to accept defeat. A young woman I know used to be sent out to collect eggs from her family chicken coop. Many days it was fine, but somedays she arrived only to discover that a predator had come in and created a bloody scene. In time, she learned to tell herself “the chickens are dead.” When she joyfully found the chickens alive and well, with plenty of eggs, she was delighted. But she was ready for the worst and mentally prepared herself for a difficult outcome. Think of it as walking on questionable pond ice. You can’t merely charge across the water body. You need to be alert.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joseph Monninger.
After thirty years of teaching, and three days into his retirement, Joseph Monninger was diagnosed with Stage-4, terminal lung cancer. His memoir, Goodbye To Clocks Ticking, which follows the arc of the year after the diagnosis, is the most recent of his more than thirty books. He lives in New Hampshire near the Baker River.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Oh, geez. Does anyone want to hear all that? High school football player, college scholarship to Temple University, Peace Corps in West Africa, marriage, divorce, a child, hikes, fishing trips, travel, the entire parade of modern life. I guess the one thing that is slightly different about me is the dedication I’ve managed to practice toward writing. At an early age I decided to write a thousand words a day. Although I’ve missed various intervals due to life’s intrusions, I’ve largely kept at it.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Well, once along the way I seemed to come to a dead end when it came to publishing my work. I was still a young writer, but I hadn’t sold well and publishers were reluctant to keep going down the same trail. That sort of thing happens a great deal in publishing. You only have so many chances. So around my fourth or fifth book, the editors were less than enthusiastic. Even if they liked what I wrote personally, it wasn’t worth publishing from a marketing standpoint. After receiving a few rejections, I sat down and lowered my shoulders, so to speak. I decided to write a book as honestly — with as much honest content — as I could muster. I wrote a book about a fishing trip I took with an old Golden Retriever. The book was called Home Waters and it was purchased by Chronicle Books and published successfully. I learned two lessons from that. First, there is an honest place inside one that we have to work to uncover. And second, careers, with any luck, are long and winding. Only a fool would imagine her or his career to go along without bumps.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m not a company, so I can’t really answer this one.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Dear old Mr. Luxemborg. He was an English teacher in my high school and a figure of fun for us. We mocked him. He wore vest sweaters and he had dentures that sometimes slipped when he spoke. He was a perfect target for a bunch of high schoolers. Then one spring day in my senior year, right near the end of our term, he read a poem — which has since become one of my favorites — called Dulce et Decorum Est by the Word War I poet Winfred Owens. It’s a poem that describes the horrors of war and entreats us not to tell the young the old lie that “sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.”
Well, old man Luxemborg read us that poem and in the midst of it he began to weep. The class, which was so ready to be done with school, to be done with this fatuous old man, grew absolutely silent. How was this man, this figure of mockery, reaching down into us and making us awaken to the pain and anguish and beauty of life? This was the power of literature! This was the voice of a poet, dead in the last week of WWI, calling to an idiotic high school class in New Jersey and telling us this is what it means to be human. That moment has stayed with me forever.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is getting back up. That’s all I know about it.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different from resilience?
Courage is knowing you are going to get knocked down, but going ahead with it anyway. I suppose I think of courage as a property of intellect. It’s something we can choose to be, something we can act out. We can be courageous in one moment, then a coward in the next. You only need to read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage to understand that. In one battle, the soldier in the story shrinks back and acts cowardly, fleeing the skirmish. In the final charge a few days later, he leads the charge. He has made a conscious decision to be brave, to demonstrate courage.
In contrast, resilience strikes me as a character trail. It’s a habit of personality. Everyone suffers defeat at some point. The question becomes whether we stand back up and keep going.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Oh, gosh. There are too many examples. Any parent who has lost a child but continues to live is resilient in the most profound way. The working man or woman who is not paid enough, not given the opportunity she or he hopes for, but comes back to the job the next day….that’s resilience. To be able to manage one’s disappointment, to accept that the challenge of life is at times overwhelming, but to persevere…that’s resiliency.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Well, I’m not sure someone told me a thing was impossible, but there have certainly been times when people let me see that they didn’t have faith that I could carry something out. I mean, we are all miracles in the first place. Just by being born we have won a lottery of ridiculous odds. Often it’s our own voice that tells us something is impossible. A quick story. I remember getting a bike for Christmas one year when I was about ten. It was a good deal bigger than my previous bike, so when I took it out for a ride the first time I fell off and hurt myself pretty well. A couple kids who were watching me laughed and made fun. I parked the bike in our garage, then found my mother and told her, in tears, that the stupid bike was too big, that I hated it, and all the rest. At that point I didn’t think I could ever ride the damn thing. Well, she calmly told me to put it away, to give it time, and, of course, a day or two later I was riding it like a champ. You see, I had told myself that it was impossible, but my mother had demonstrated resiliency in her thinking. It was a little lesson.
Did you have a time in your life when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
We have setbacks, I know, but more often, it seems to me, it is the case that something in our lives dwindles or dries up. The faucet is turned lower. I recall once when I when I was supposed to meet friends to go see a movie, I realized I didn’t have enough money to afford the ticket price. I was a young teacher and it really made me wonder about career choices, the direction I had set for my life. If I couldn’t afford the ten bucks for a movie, if I had to check couch cushions and look in my car for change, then what was I doing? It was supposed to be easy to get rich in America! Recently, of course, I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I wouldn’t say I’ve bounced back — no one truly bounces back from this level of cancer — but I am still going forward, still trying to live a meaningful life. The odd thing about this serious cancer diagnosis is that it is simultaneously earth shaking and completely mundane. It turned over my world, but in the aftermath there is no option short of death but to go forward. You still have to go to the grocery store. You still need to rake the leaves, change the screen doors for storm doors and so on. You do those simple chores while a voice is roaring in your head that death is coming, life is precious. Nevertheless, the garbage needs to be taken out, the dishes washed.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Sports and games taught me a good deal about resiliency. I came from a large Irish Catholic family and my parents dreamed up the idea of giving us a large family game for Christmas. In other words, we received a pool table one year, then a ping pong surface that fit over the pool table the next. Well, naturally in a big family the ping pong and pool games became epic very quickly. Lots of anger, lots of gloating, lots of childhood drama. We played partners, had tournaments, the usual crazy family stuff. But I was the youngest and the least skilled, so I took my lumps more than most. In time, however, because I haunted the games and always wanted to participate, I became one of the better players. Sports are a pretty good way to demonstrate how one builds a skill. You start off as the kid no one wants on the team, but if you care to try and stay with it, chances are you can make your way. I don’t much like sports as a metaphor for life, but they have their lessons to teach.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Five! Wow. Well, I think I’ve already touched on a few. In no particular order, here are a few approaches to the idea.
- Expect to lose your share of matches or events. Imagine difficulty, not only conquest.
- Put in the time. I used to tell students that you should aim to be the person others want to call, not the person who needs to call for help. In short, be the electrician, not the home owner who knows nothing about electricity. To be a person others need, you must develop a skill or a body of knowledge. Once you have that under your belt, critics cannot harm you. I have published a novel or two that I knew — from my writing practice, reading, and careful consideration — were pretty all right. If I read, for instance, on Goodreads or Amazon that reader X didn’t like this or that, I didn’t have to worry. I had done my work so that I knew the novel was solid. I had made myself an expert on that one particular thing.
- Put yourself in the game. Jump in. Give it a try. The more you lose, the closer you come to winning.
- Remember time. Life is long if you’re lucky. Don’t expect a graph line that always goes up. It won’t. No one’s life graph line goes up eternally. Prepare yourself to accept defeat. A young woman I know used to be sent out to collect eggs from her family chicken coop. Many days it was fine, but somedays she arrived only to discover that a predator had come in and created a bloody scene. In time, she learned to tell herself “the chickens are dead.” When she joyfully found the chickens alive and well, with plenty of eggs, she was delighted. But she was ready for the worst and mentally prepared herself for a difficult outcome. Think of it as walking on questionable pond ice. You can’t merely charge across the water body. You need to be alert.
- Observe closely the lives of others. Read biographies. I just finished the Elvis biography — Last Train to Memphis. Excellent book. As silly as Elvis might appear to us now, he was a major figure in our entertainment world and quite a talented guy. Reading about his life, it is filled with up and downs. I’ve read biographies of Catherine the Great, George Washington, Muhammed Ali, Darwin….all have the same peaks and valleys in their lives. The problems change from life to life, but the essence of their journey, the resiliency they have to demonstrate, is a constant thread throughout.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I had the idea the other day that America has a zillion garages and outbuildings that could be converted to tiny homes for the un-homed. Like Habitat for Humanity, we could start a company that could covert a garage quickly. The attractive thing about garages would be that they are already built and already in place. With the cooperation of the homeowner, and the supervision of the parent company, we could get some people indoors who currently have no place to go. A bed, a bath (tied into the existing plumbing system) and a small cooking capacity. I’m guessing each one could be finished off for under $10,000. Many people want to give in this country, but it’s hard to know how. If we could harness them by turning their garages to good use, they might be tempted.
I also had an idea I wrote up called Ten Men. In my experience, men are often shamed and made to feel unwanted, or distrusted, in our society….and often for good reason. Men screw up routinely, sad to say. But men also work well together. What if we had a network of men who could respond to a need? Up here in New England, for instance, many of us have to get our wood in for winter. Older people have difficulty doing that. What if they could call an organization like Ten Men and get ten burly guys to come over and put their wood up for the winter? The homeowner would benefit, obviously, but so would the men from coming together to do good. They could involve young men, too, The spin off could be Ten Women and so on.
I’m an old Peace Corps volunteer, so I think about these things. I’ve thought for a long time there should be a national library card. If I’m travelling in Nebraska from New Hampshire, I should be able to stop in to any library and grab a book. We could deliver it back by free postage through the post office. Imagine if part of any trip for kids was a visit to a new library! It would be empowering. It could be a program that would benefit everyone.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I would like to meet with a leader of a major network or media platform to propose that we need, as a country, a national discussion on religion and god. I’m a staunch atheist. I posit that the belief in the supernatural, the space — intellectually, emotionally, and financially — that we give to religions and their tax free buildings, is detrimental to us. It’s also depleting our commons. If you think of the wealth of, say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the money it represents, and then allow it to be tax free, well, we are making a grave mistake. We have been making that same mistake for decades, if not centuries. We need to establish a program, a primetime program, to challenge the assumptions behind the god beliefs and the assorted claims of religion. We need a public demonstration of critical thinking, in other words. In the two thousand years since Christ’s death, no one has been able to prove the existence of God. If someone could, we would all know the evidence cold. It wouldn’t be a question. But that evidence doesn’t exist. In fact, we don’t have much in the way of proof that Jesus even lived! How would we be changed as a nation if we had one, five, a dozen shows on tv that challenged religious assumptions? A 60 minutes that talked in detail about the nonsense of religious belief. Let’s bring this Bronze Age superstition out of the closet and shine some light on it! Honestly, it’s happening via the internet in any case. Religions, at least in America, are slowly dying. We need to have a sincere discussion about it. We see religious influence everywhere, but we are terrified of discussing it! We permit a mass delusion, a fairy tale, then allow for tax benefits, closed bookkeeping, hoarded wealth. We subsidize religion and we are now in the process of allowing public monies going to religious schools. Prosperity gospel ministers fly around in private jets and go largely unaudited. It’s poor public policy. So, yes, I would like to make my case to someone who could put such a discussion in front of the public. Not one time only, mind, but an everyday sort of program that challenges the assumption under the god claim. How’s that for pie in the sky?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m an author, so bookstores and any booksellers on line have a list of my work. Goodbye to Clocks Ticking will be out next March.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!