August 6, 2020
Last year, Susie Ma’am came to me with this message. She wanted us to talk about strength rather than just resilience. I had recently posted an article in Psychology Today on “antifragility”. The gist of the article was simple.
Immune systems are antifragile. After exposure to a sickness, they become more robust. Bones and muscles also benefit from gravity and exercise. Susie Ma’am favorite example is palm trees.
In early 1991, the University of Arizona created the biosphere – a climate-controlled dome designed to see if life could grow in inhospitable environments (like Mars or the moon). Within this dome, they grew plants, trees and introduced animals. To their surprise, they found that palm trees grew faster inside the dome than in nature. The reason for this was only discovered after the experiment ended.
Upon completion, many of the trees were transferred to new locations. Tall and majestic, they added beauty to their new locales.
Until the first storm with high winds.
When exposed to 30 MPH winds, the fast-growing trees from the biosphere snapped.
It turns out that wind forces trees to create “stress wood” that make the bases of the trees stronger. Stress wood takes more energy to form, so the trees grow a bit slower. But they are strong and able to absorb hurricane winds.
Children are antifragile. When they experience unfamiliar and challenging experiences, they emerge on the other side more capable. Of course, there are exceptions. Some experiences are truly traumatic and lead to difficulties rather than strengths. But the regular challenges of life – the difficult teacher, the bad test, the inconsiderate (or even rude) friends, the failed challenge – these are the breezes that grow the stress wood in our children.
What makes camp special is that we can provide challenges in an environment that is both fun and supportive. Failing to get up on skis is not devastating when a caring counselor talks to you afterwards. Disagreements with cabinmates are soon forgotten at the next favorite activity.
But they are still becoming stronger.
As we return to a world that is different from the one we had just 6-7 months ago, I like the idea of our kiddos returning home stronger. Their friends will need them to be exemplars. They will show that you can have fun and be a friend – even with a mask. They will be more comfortable with change and uncertainty.
That is a comforting thought.