Walking trail in the Sacred Valley, Cusco

Resilience is a hot topic at the moment, especially in light of the growing number of people suffering from depression. Resilience is derived from a 17th century Latin word meaning ‘leaping back’ and this captures the essence of what it is to be resilient: it is to be able to ‘leap back’ or recover from trials and tribulations. When I think of resilience, I often recall experiences I had while working in the field in the Central Andes. Climbing mountains in Peru helped me build my core physical, mental and emotional strength. Notably, before living in Peru, I had experienced significant challenges and difficulties, including the death of my mother, and failed to ‘bounce back’. After each knock, I simply became less open to life. By the time I entered my teenager years I was a full-blown worry wart, clinging to the safety of routines, often refusing to try new things and was afraid to enjoy life. At the same time, I was driven to succeed in everything I did, mostly because I felt invisible and so dearly wanted to be seen and accepted.

So, I thought I would share a short tale about the day I started to teach myself how to get back up when down. It starts like this.

My field team and I set out on a fine blue winter’s morning. The air was crisp and misty as the dew began to slowly evaporate under the Sun’s light. We were alive with anticipation: today we would trek for eight hours, walking south from the town where we had been living for over two months, to a more remote location and home to rugged sandy mountains. We were well prepared for this trip. We were intending to camp for seven days at this place and there was no running water and no electricity. Each of us carried little mountains on our backs: 45 to 60 litre backpacks filled to the brim with clean clothes, field equipment and notebooks, a portable stove,  utensils and serving wares, soup packets, fresh and dried fruit and cheese, while burros, donkeys, transported big gallons of drinkable water.

With a spritely step, we began our journey. We followed the rambling dirt road from the town down to the trickling river, and then crossed it, jumping from boulder to boulder. At this point, we began a steady ascent. We climbed slowly a rocky mountain. As we reached its summit an hour later, I began to feel a slow fire burning the lining of my lungs: I was struggling to take in air molecules. I had to stop not once but twice along the way. Every time I rested, I was hit with a nasty ill wind. As I watched my field assistants seemingly cruise along, my mind began to berate me, ‘you need to keep up with the others! You must not show them that you are weak!’

Demonstrating strength seemed so important at the time, as not only was I the jefa, the leader of the project, but also a girl. Not long after my arrival in Peru, several colleagues had prided themselves in telling me that women in archaeology belonged in the laboratory because they were by nature delicate and the field was fraught with dangers. While I knew these remarks represented the ugly face of Peruvian culture, machismo, at the same time I wanted to prove that I could make it the field. I just wanted to be accepted.

I recovered easily from these initial mental setbacks, and continued to push myself forward, but when the nasty mental gust blew later in the day, it knocked me down emotionally and physically. Collapsing in a heap under a tree, out of the afternoon Sun, I felt exhausted and defeated. I had been walking for six hours by this time and while I could see our final destination, our campsite, I just felt like I couldn’t go on. Miserable hot tears formed in my eyes. The end was just so close, and yet so far away! In reflection, I now understand that anguish is something I almost always experience when I am trying to learn a new skill or achieve a goal, short or long-term.

Suddenly, a memory broke through the mind’s mist. The year before a Peruvian colleague and I had gone one a day trip through similar terrain. As we stopped for a quick rest towards the end of our journey, I asked him how he kept going when he was tired. He lit up a cigarette while considering my question. After a quick puff, he turned to me and said, ‘I sing rock n’ roll.’ For the final leg of our trek, I listened to him sing ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

The memory spoke, ‘Sing, Lisa!’

The only song my mind could conjure was ‘Blue Skies.’ I couldn’t quite remember all of the lyrics, so this is what I sung,

‘Blue days

All of them gone

Nothing but blue skies

From now on.

Blue birds singing a song.

Nothing but blue skies

From now on.’

I got up singing, and turned my attention to the path ahead, focusing on the pimpled mountains standing on the horizon, my destination. After a while, the song faded but left my spirits elevated.

With the power of song and great effort, I made it to my destination just as Venus began to climb the night’s sky.

A gotita de sabiduría, a tiny drop of wisdom, I distilled from this experience was this: when collapsing under the pressure of hardships, it is important to stop and embrace the simple joys of life. This is because they animate us, helping to lift us out of the bog of heavy emotions. As this tale reveals, music is one of my simple pleasures: it can elevate quickly me and support me until I enter the flow. Once I hit my stride, then I’m off!

How do you lift yourself when you’re down? Share your story with us, as we would love to hear from you.

If you are experiencing depression at the moment or know someone who is and need support, reach out to organisations, such as Beyond the Blue and R U OK?

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