Change of any sort requires resilience. Interestingly, it can also create resilience. As we take action, we grow our capacities. The trick is to know when to do, when to rest, and when to realign.
What I call the Resilience Bucket provides a way to visualize our capacity to cope with stress or change in any given moment. Today, I’ll describe The Resilience Bucket and some recommended means to top it off. I’ll also introduce an artist, Xavier Nuez, who has a lot to teach us on this topic.
The Resilience Bucket
In the Western world, we’re inundated with messages to GET THINGS DONE! Productivity is the hot ticket of our times. I’m not against efficiency or effectiveness. The more skill we have in that department, the more time we have for fun! But being productive just so you can be more productive is obsessive and unhealthy. Intuitively, we all know that being perpetually busy can’t possibly lead to peace, contentment, happiness, or love.
Rather than chasing a completed to-do list, you can choose to invest energy and attention into building up and managing resilience. You’ll get much more bang for your buck.
Months ago, I wrote about my sophisticated theory of resilience: Weebles Wobble But They Don’t Fall Down. I aspire to live like a weeble – greeting life openly, with all its splendor and turmoil – always bouncing (or inching) back to greet the next moment.
Weebles manage to stay grounded with a weighted bottom. We humans need this too, and we can cultivate this capacity by taking time to pause, breathe, and connect with others.
Pausing is the STOP DOING part. Breathing and connecting create ballast, as do a myriad of other approaches that regulate the nervous system. Another of my personal faves is immersion in art and awe.
We all need to know our personal recipe for filling up on resilience if we want to feel, look, love, and create as our best selves. Let’s look at some options.
Crop rotation systems require that fields lie fallow on a regular basis so that soil can recover organic matter, fill up with moisture, and clean house (rid itself of pathogens). This is called ‘sustainable land management.’
We humans need sustainable management, too. Sometimes, we need to rest, recharge and allow our creative juices to lie fallow – even if just for a few moments. For me, that often comes in the form of immersion in art, and the artists who light up my life. This allows me (and my neurons) to regenerate.
Filling The Bucket
Imagine that you start your day with a bucket, chockfull of resilience. You feel fully charged. As the day wears on, your resilience gets scooped up: a missed train, an angry client, a pissed-off spouse, eating a salad when you really want a burger, bypassing the bar when you really want a cocktail.
A few days ago, I took a long ride with a slow-driving, chip-munching, hands-off-the-wheel-steering, broken-seatbelt-toting Uber driver. During the ride, I also learned that a client is hospitalized with Monkeypox. I could feel my resilience dripping out my toes!
Little and big challenges chip away.
Now let’s say you’ve woven your way through a bunch of stressors and you’re scraping the bottom of your bucket. You intend to have a salad for dinner, but somehow wind up at a drive-thru hoisting a big mac, large fries, and a shake. Or you find yourself at a bar, pounding back a few when you’d planned on a run and quality family time.
What just happened? You faced temptation when your bucket was empty.
That’s how the bucket works. Self-control is intact when you have resilience to spare. When it’s depleted, your ability to handle challenges decreases. There’s no resilience left, so there’s also no self-control.
Now, the worst part begins: self-recrimination. When I first meet new clients, they’re almost always plagued by shame at their perceived failure of willpower. Weak willpower is interpreted as a personal, characterological flaw. If your willpower fails, it means you’re a failure as a person. I see this every day and I have to admit…it slays me.
Listen up, please: Lack of willpower means your bucket’s too low to meet the challenge. It has nothing to do with you as a person. You are not defective. And your bucket isn’t defective either. It’s just running on fumes.
Time to stop the shame game.
Understanding what willpower actually is, when to rely on it, and when it’s actually harmful is critical before attempting any life change. Most people think that willpower is the key to success but research shows it to be largely ineffective in the long run. Willpower interacts with resilience and is essentially non-existent if your bucket isn’t full.
The Bucket is your route to success in regaining resilience to fuel your willpower and every other tool for change.
I often top off my Resilience Bucket with art and awe. First, I pause and notice the need. Then, I breathe. Sometimes, what I inhale is oxygen and at other times, it’s art – much the way some folks inhale a pint of Ben & Jerry’s (but with far fewer calories). I seek out something juicy like nature photography, revisit my own nomadic-travel Instagram photos, or visit an outdoor sculpture park. When I’m very, very lucky, I “discover” a new artist and take a deep dive into the gifts they embody and offer to the world. And then, if at all possible, I connect.
That’s what happened this past weekend. Today, I want to share my discovery with you. Let’s talk about art that revives and an artist who discovered his own bucket-filling process.
Xavier Nuez: Resilience Objectified and Personified
Last week, after I wrote about my obsession with graffiti, a reader pointed me to a local artist, Xavier Nuez, whose photographs of graffiti are quite literally unparalleled (that’s his stunning work up top). Nuez lives in Chicago but is nationally known and lauded. He’s received scores of rave reviews from around the country and The New York Times called his Alleys & Ruins series “a masterpiece.” I wholeheartedly agree.
I was as close to speechless as I ever get when I perused his art-chocked website. I could literally feel the levels rising in my Resilience Bucket. Resilience sloshing about. Bucket overflowing. Art-induced awe has that effect on me.
My articulate and eloquent response to the reader who turned me on to Nuez:
Decades ago, Nuez developed a unique style of art photography – one that transforms abandoned places into beauty and, literally, light. We are not talking European, bucolic castle ruins. Oh, no. These are hidden urban pockets haunted by trauma and universally considered ugly, decrepit, worthless, and dangerous. Places occupied by unfortunates who have nowhere else to go.
Nuez goes there, though.
When he says, “I go to neglected spots. They interest me more,” it touches me. In my line of work, I feel the same way about neglected people. There’s so much depth. So much beauty once you shine a light.
Let me show you what he does and how he does it.
Here’s a photo I’m staring at as I write. (Because, yes, I immediately tracked down Mr. Nuez. I felt compelled to see and purchase his work. And I wanted to score The Bucket’s holy grail – a human connection).
I can practically feel the texture of the couch’s fabric, the roughness of the brick walls, the brittle peel of the graffiti paint. In my mind, I’m tripping on discarded bricks and wondering what blew that hole in the wall. I absorb the richness of the colors, the haunting background and foreground. My imagination leaps to the life this couch must have lived. The scenes imprinted on its memory. And the people (and animals) who have occupied this very “room.”
Now, let’s have a look at the original scene, as scoped out by the artist prior to his nighttime shoot:
😳 Hence my nearly-speechless comment: “Wow. Just wow.”
Nuez finds beauty in abandoned, decaying spaces, paints them with a light that can only radiate from his soul, and then shares them with the world. He is the translator, allowing us mere mortals to see what’s been there all along, invisible to eyes that lack adequate vision and refuse to look.
You all know I’m a creature of awe and even I simply can’t see what’s there without Nuez’s assistance.
How it Happens
You can read all about Nuez’s process on his website, where he hosts photos, videos, and stories about his creations. Here’s a brief explanation…
Nuez shoots at night, in dark settings, with lengthy exposures (often one to two hours). He ventures in, clad in black, with a boat-load of high-end lighting equipment, a 50-year-old Hasselblad camera, and a vision. He uses this ancient camera because it produces large negatives that yield extremely high-res photos even when enlarged considerably. His large pieces are knock-your-socks-off stunning.
Because he’s clad in black, his own form doesn’t register on the film during the long exposures. He runs about, shining colored lights on magically chosen places. (I say ‘magical’ because I can’t possibly explain how he sees the beauty beneath.) He is literally painting with light, resulting in otherworldly, psychedelic masterpieces.
The Relation to Resilience
Nuez is somehow able to convey the resilience of a place – how much more lies under the surface than we can see at its face.
The same is true of you – of all of us. How much of our real self lurks beneath, afraid to step out of the shadows? As a psychologist – a partner and guide to many an uncovering – I can tell you that when what’s hidden becomes manifest, it’s always gorgeous.
Even an ‘ugly’ emotion like anger, once excavated, emanates as passion – often for justice, equality, liberation. Sadness is so often a plea for connection. What a beautiful wish. And when those feelings are processed, a bottleneck is cleared. Feelings like joy and awe and compassion rise to the surface and light up the room. And with that, resilience is born – in the person having the experience and those present.
Nuez finds a worthy spot and pauses. He breathes, rests, and reflects (and takes test shots 🙂). He connects deeply with the place and with people, when they’re present. He not only fills his own bucket. He fills up the place.
Nuez and I have similar strategies: we excavate the light hiding in the shadows. The artist and the psychologist – our eyes, minds, and hearts are calibrated to pay keen attention to things and people overlooked by society. And we also light up beautiful places and people so they can see their own glow.
That’s a bit of the what and the how. Now let’s talk about the why.
Creating an Art Form
I’m fascinated by people who develop their own art forms. We bandy about the term ‘unique’ to describe people who are an unusual combination of qualities. But Nuez is the real deal. This is his thing and he’s the only one doing it. How in the world did this approach develop?
His fascination for abandoned places began in childhood. He grew up playing in alleyways and absorbed his father’s stories about growing up homeless. Ah, the impressions left in childhood. Indelible.
Later, while working his day job as a commercial photographer, he would capture the shiny, presentable aspects of architecture. “I needed to balance that order with some form of chaos,” he told The New York Times. Life seeks balance…always.
Shooting at night also served as an ideal antidote for social phobia. It allowed Nuez to spend time on his art in isolation, keeping the anxiety at bay, and providing him an unobstructed view into his own creative process. This is what happens when you’re pulled in a certain direction – a little niggle or whisper in the gut, “try this” – and you’re willing to listen. Here’s where the realign aspect of resilience steps in. Stop doing. Listen. Realign. Then, if you keep pulling at that thread, solutions and new ideas emerge.
Nuez had a problem – social phobia – and he found a way to solve it. In the process, he created a new art form that brings light and color into many people’s lives.
This, too, is resilience. This is the inner healer at work, identifying a problem, and brilliantly executing a solution. I’d bet my last dollar that Nuez didn’t fully realize why he was doing what he was doing when he started doing it. And he certainly couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on his own artistry and career. But he listened to that inner wisdom and kept pulling the thread. And here he is, a unicorn, spreading rainbows in darkened spaces.
Filling The Bucket
Five years ago, Nuez had the epiphany that continually inserting himself in the line of fire – literally and figuratively – was no longer required. This has been dangerous solo work – hauling expensive gear into places that are vacant or inhabited by gangs and drug addicts, oft-visited by creatures of the night or police. Ironically, working in those circumstances had given Nuez respite – from the social interactions crowded daylight presents. As his bucket filled, his anxiety relaxed, and he rediscovered his own joy, love, and vitality. It was a multi-year journey into the light, as it so often is, but just look at the amazing personal and artistic results.
He decided it was time to bring his artistry to ordinary, appreciated, and frequented places. Safe spaces. He continues to deliver the same quality of gasp-worthy, light-painted place-portraits but now he’s enhancing places already viewed as pleasant and desirable. While we didn’t discuss this, it sure sounds like a step in a healthy direction. I love when people vote for their own well-being. It’s nearly as beautiful as his art.
Here’s an example – another print positioned in my line of sight as I write:
Anyone want to be a Weeble with me? The worst our lives will ever get is wobbly. No Humpty-dumpty outcomes for us. Doesn’t that sound comforting?
We can all get there by slowing things down. Pause. Breathe. Connect. And when oxygen doesn’t do the trick, inhale what you love – be it art and awe, motivating music, creative cookery. You get to choose.
This week, I filled my own bucket with art-awe and connection with a creative soul. And I learned that a place can be refueled with light and careful attention, just like my bucket can be filled with resilience.
Lastly, just in case you’re wondering…yes…I very nearly bought Nuez’s whole studio. Because that’s how I roll when art-awe strikes. There’s not a whole lot I won’t do for a jolt of otherworldly wonder – especially if it involves supporting an artist of this caliber. And filling my own Resilience Bucket to the brim.
* Image up top by Xavier Nuez (with permission): Alleys & Ruins no. 151, Razor (2016, Philadelphia, PA, 10:30pm)