Last week, during the first somewhat normal pandemic-era social dinner I had at a friend's house, I heard a fascinating story about apples.
More specifically, the story had to do with a surprising - and somewhat violent - human intervention that helps apple trees bloom more fully, beautifully and fruitfully.
How we got onto the topic I can't say for sure - the grape bouquet was certainly in full bloom that night - but my friend told me a story about her family's apple orchard, and how every spring her father would walk among the trees, axe in-hand, and give each tree a good whack-or-two.
On first hearing this, I nearly screamed out of empathy for those poor defenseless tree trunks, but soon enough my psychologist's brain kicked in and I thought: Ah, of course! Pure genius. That is brilliant.
That is: Resilience.
Upon doing some deep research on gardening websites [true story], it turned out that my inference - that this solid dose of shock 'scared' the trees into pumping more nutrients to their potential offspring for survival reasons - was correct. I learned that administering this physical blow to trees (as well as bushes and plants of other varieties) triggers the release of a plant-based hormone called traumatin, somewhat similar to the human hormone adrenalin. Traumatin stimulates the growth and development of flower buds, pushing the tree to 'fight' for survival, and voila - come harvest, you have a magnificent offering of beautiful blooms and juicy fruits.
And there is evidence of this same mechanism operating out in the wild as well - natural disasters, apparently, can have the same effect, with the shock and devastation of Hurricane Ike in 2008 having caused many plants to bloom entirely out of season later on that same year.
So, why was this such a lightbulb moment for me? Why did I love this story so much?
Well, has the axe of life not been hacking away at us for months now? Has this pandemic not swept through our personal and public spheres like a hurricane, causing shock and devastation, and threatening virtually all of the foundations upon which we have built our society? Chipping away at the most crucial [read: sacred] one of all: coming together and interacting with each other live, in-person, face-to-face.
The story of the unsuspecting apple tree that grows to exceed all expectations in the Fall after suffering hardship in the Spring has become one of my favorites to share with clients, because it is a story of perseverance, resilience, triumph, and of not only surviving but thriving. In two words, it's a story of: Positive Psychology.
I frequently teach on the topic of positive psychology, and in order to impress upon my learners just how much of a perspective shift it brought to the overall field of psychology, I boil it down to the one fundamental difference in self-questioning it ushered: the difference between asking ourselves the usual What is wrong with me? vs What am I already doing right?
It is as simple and profound as that.
When we adopt an attitude informed by positive psychology, we ask ourselves an entirely different set of questions than what our negativity-prone brain is accustomed to. We don't ask: What needs to be fixed inside of me? Why am I so incompetent? Why can't I do anything right? Why does everyone else seem to be better at this than me? Instead we ask: What am I already doing pretty well? What am I skilled at? What are my strengths?
And when it comes to thriving, we ask: What have I learned and am able to do now thanks to the struggle I have gone through? We refer to this as Post-traumatic Thriving.
"What have I learned and am able to do now thanks to the struggle I have gone through?"
Now, before you scroll down and carry on reading the rest of this post, I invite you to take just a moment right now to answer the above question. I encourage you to even take one additional step, and write the answer down somewhere.
Pen and paper please - not on your smartphone;)
If you have been finding yourself in moments of self-doubt, disappointment or general low mood lately - and if you have, please believe me when I say that you are so far from being alone in that experience - keep your answer to this question close at-hand so that you can remind yourself of it from time to time. Even though life is not "back to normal" right now and may never go back there again, life still is and we still have to live it, and you are going to keep getting better at it because of what you have learned over these past twelve months.
Now, you may well find that you are not quite ready to engage with this question yet; as someone who has trained in both psychotherapy and coaching, I can tell you that this feeling too is perfectly natural because the timing of this question is crucially important. It can be counterproductive and even insensitive to ask yourself - or others - what you have learned from a struggle if you feel you are still very much in the middle of it. And we know that many still are when it comes to Covid.
If that is you - feel free to come back to this question at a later time, and for now perhaps just connect to a sense of gratitude instead, by asking yourself: What resource am I grateful for having had over this past year?
Whatever stage of recovery you feel you are personally at in this moment, I am noticing that as a global society we have entered a phase of gathering together our learnings from the past year and making decisions around how we want to move forward to try to make 2021 at least a bit better - how we want to bear fruit in a world that is still not quite done surviving.
And so to support you with that, I offer you this image - of an apple tree that reached well-beyond its potential thanks to the blows it suffered. And I offer you these questions: What have the blows of Covid helped you bear out? What have you been able to accomplish, or learn about yourself, or do for others, that you never would have been able to before?
What have the blows of Covid helped you bear out? What have you been able to accomplish, or learn about yourself, or do for others, that you never would have been able to before?
As you ponder them, remind yourself also of some of the good news you came across this past year, of the examples of solidarity you witnessed, of the immense amount of strength and perseverance you yourself embodied and have seen in others. And by doing so, decide to make a conscious and purposeful choice about the direction you want to point your attention in. Decide to focus on our strengths. Decide to focus on your strengths.
That is thriving. That is what it means to be deeply and uniquely human to the fullest capacity.
And having the capacity for such enlightened thinking in the middle of a raging global pandemic - not too bad for frail defenseless little creatures spinning around on this big Blue Planet, is it?