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Resilient Responders: Meaning & Purpose

Dr. James D. Guy
Executive Director and Cofounder, Headington Institute, 2014.


Our ongoing resilience research has confirmed what I’ve found from many years of working with emergency responders around the world: most began their work with a profound sense of calling, a deep desire to help others and make the world a better place.  For some, this was rooted in their religious heritage or a deep personal spirituality.  For others, this came from a sense of connection with forces beyond time and space, such as a participation in universal goodness or life force.

That sense of transcendence, a meaning and purpose beyond self-interest, is central to making you resilient in the midst of a crisis situation.  It reminds you that life is bigger than this moment.  The sun will come up tomorrow, and there is reason to hold on to hope.  Despite the horror of any given moment, it can be seen as part of a much larger story that will continue to unfold.  This releases you from ultimate responsibility for what is happening and what will follow.  You must do only what you can in that moment, to help those you’re with and not surrender to despair.

Nurturing your personal spirituality strengthens your resilience, enabling your brain to be in top condition when the demands associated with a critical incident come along.  This helps your mind maintain balance and health.  This can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways:  active participation in a faith community, prayer & meditation, quiet walks among nature, singing, painting or writing, yoga, etc.  By making something “spiritual” a part of your routine, you anchor your brain in a rich foundation of meaning and purpose that will help you be strong and ready to respond in the future.

During a critical incident, it will be helpful to access your source of spiritual strength, even if only briefly.  A quick prayer, a short walk away from the disaster scene, a quiet song, a brief period of meditation, or a mindfulness exercise – any of these can tap you directly into your source of spiritual strength.  Rather than an unnecessary distraction, they will give you the vitality you need to work better and longer.

After the crisis has ended, it may be useful to turn immediately to those people, practices, and symbols holding the deepest meaning in your life.  Plug into whatever source of spiritual energy is available to you.  This will rebuild your resilience and remind you that life continues and holds promise, even for you and the victims you served.  Participate in meaningful experiences that bring grace, hope, and goodness into your awareness.  Your soul will be thirsty for these nutrients.  Include care for your spirit in your recovery plan.

However you find meaning and purpose in your work as an emergency responder, be sure to nurture your sense of meaning and purpose before, during, and after a critical incident.  Revisit this priority often, reminding yourself of why and how you are able to do this important work.

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