north of neutral dialog

October 5, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Stephan Unger, Father, Konstanz, Germany

When my father was 55 years old, he drove me to Munich airport. I was heading for the US for a year of study abroad. He had just left the hospital after being treated for serious cardiac problems and I was chocked up on my way to the airport, worried I might never see him again and was seriously questioning my decision to leave…

My father lived on for a further 24 years, exceeding today’s average life expectancy of a German male by two years, and while his health declined over the years, he remained ever optimistic until the day he finally left this earth for good.

So, what was his secret? (Before you read on, I would like to stress that I can see how some of you might feel that my story may be too personal to offer an objective narrative. In this case, jump right down to the ‘north of neutral pearls of learning’ as these discuss the insights that scientific research on resilience has to offer – valuable for all of us who experience stress and adversity.)

The journey

Born in 1931 in Augsburg, Germany, as the youngest and only son of his parents’ ten children, my father was destined heir to my grandfather’s farming and meatpacking firm. Over the years, despite the persistent attempts of my grandfather to integrate his son into the family business (every morning at 4 am my father would have to tend to the animals in the stalls), my father always seemed bound for a more intellectual path, and his strong but lean fingers were better equipped to play the piano than to cut shanks. This caused much conflict at home as he longed to study medicine, but with ten children finances were tight and my grandmother, a fiercely catholic woman whom my father adored, encouraged him to accept the offer of the Dominican convent who promised to finance his studies of theology and philosophy in exchange for his joining their ranks.

During his studies my father often played competitive soccer, or jumped headfirst off a 10-meter platform at the local pool. One day, at the age of 24, he felt a large lump in his knee. The surgeon who opened his leg to remove the tumor diagnosed cancer and, before the lab returned its analysis of the tissue samples, he had removed all the lymph nodes in my father’s right leg. The result was lymphedema: a leg filled with fluids, prone to infections and with the threat that it would have to be amputated in a few years’ time. Meanwhile, the lab returned the results: the tumor had been benign, the physician’s intervention premature.

Two years after this incident my father went to the hospital for minor surgery and, whilst there, caught a virus and developed myo-carditis (an inflammatory infection of the heart). The hospital priest was called to his bed to read him his last rites but, remarkably, he pulled through, with a now severely damaged heart muscle and a medical prognosis of ‘not being able to live a very long life’.

In the face of this adversity many of us may have succumbed and elected to lead a quiet and secluded life. My father, however, now as an ordained priest, continued tending to the needs of his parish. Many thought that his belief was at the core of his ability to go on so strongly but, as his life journey shows, this may only have been part of the story.

Now a man in his early thirties, he fell in love and decided to leave the convent to marry my mother, who was ten years his junior. He was excited about this new and unexpected journey. It was also a tough decision for him, as he told me many years later. Not only did he lose his formal role of helping others in the community, but church required that he gave up the close-knit bonds he had built with many of his brothers at the convent.  Equally significantly, he was effectively surrendering the career that had separated him from his father yet had pleased his mother: the rest of his very catholic family for the most part judged and shunned him. Economically speaking he had not a penny in his pocket nor a profession that would prove useful in the ‘real’ world.

He would go on to become a student counselor, and was eventually appointed student dean at the University of Konstanz, which he helped to found and build.  Of a politically conservative mindset, he was often attacked by left-wing students in the 70s, a time in Germany when the extreme left was known for its terrorist attacks on the ‘establishment’. He recalled an incident when 50 students stormed his office, shouting in unison: ”Unger out, Unger out.” On his own, he firmly stood his ground until they left. Another time, the nuts on the wheels of his car were tampered with – potentially catastrophic had he have gone over 60 miles per hour.

He continued with his role until he retired at the age of 65. As a result of his tenure the university built more affordable student housing than ever before, integrated diverse services to students on campus such as an in-house travel service and my father was instrumental in building exchange programs with universities abroad.

Aside from his achievements in helping other people, my father was also a passionate mountaineer and climbed glaciers and travelled to countries around the world, and all in all lived a full and purposeful life. Towards the end of his life he was awarded the ‘Bundesverdienstkreuz’, a national recognition in Germany for his contribution to society at large.

Mastering change: resilience

Organizations are organisms – they consist of human beings and are not abstract entities. Alongside the benefits of this comes the challenges of human interaction: misunderstandings, conflict, and internal politics can lead to prolonged periods of stress for employees which in turn can cause significant harm to an organization.

Resilience is the positive ability of people to manage stressful events and to bounce back to homeostasis. Some individuals possess a particularly adaptive system that uses exposure to stress to offer resistance to future negative events [1]. In this context, ‘resilience’ serves as cumulative protection from future adversities.

Even if you are not blessed with a naturally resilient disposition, however, the American Psychological Association  has found that the following strategies are known to build resilience in individuals:

(1) Maintain good relationships with close family members and friends.

(2) Avoid seeing crisis or stressful events as unbearable problems.

(3) Accept circumstances that cannot be changed.

(4) Develop realistic goals and move towards them step-by-step.

(5) Take decisive actions in adverse situations.

(6) Keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context.

(7) Maintain a hopeful outlook, expect good things and visualize what you wish for.

(8) Take care of your mind and body, exercise regularly and pay attention to your own needs and feelings, and engage in relaxing activities that you enjoy.

(9) Build self-confidence.

(10) Look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss .

It’s been shown that shifting from impulsive and ‘cause-oriented’ to active and ‘response-oriented’ thinking can build your resilience for current and future adversity[2]. You should consider:


What do I want life to look like on the other side of this adversity?


What aspects of the status quo can I directly address to alter the course of this crisis?

Who is at my side (mentor, role model, team members etc.)?


How can I have the most powerful impact to positively influence the situation?

How will this positively impact others?

What are the best ways to engage others around me to help?


How can I unearth positive aspects and reduce negatives?

What resources/strengths do I see in myself/others that can be useful?

What can others do – be it collectively or individually?


What can I do in the next hour, week, month, year?

What sequence of step needs to be in place to realize these goals – collectively and individually?

Building resilience does not happen overnight. It takes practice… Take 15 minutes and write down your response to these questions. Repeat this several times a week until it becomes natural for you to follow this regimen when the next crisis hits. (And it is bound to happen – you might have a fight with your boss, overshoot the budget, lose a key account, be stuck in traffic….). After some time you will notice how impulse and emotional ‘hijacks’ are replaced by productive and creative solutions.

Decades of scientific research and study has offered two key insights, here they are:

O Mindset impacts your ability to deal with adversity and ultimately determines your success and overall happiness.

O Other people do matter: build a winning team!

So, bringing things back to my father and his life, I remember that he never “wasted a good crisis”. Despite the hand that life had dealt him – some of the perhaps ‘unjust’ experiences that he had – he always maintained a ‘can do’ attitude, focusing not on what he could not do, but on what he was able to do.  And that will always motivate me and help that, whatever happens, I remain resilient…

[1] Masten, A. S. (2009). Ordinary Magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Education Canada, 49(3): 28-32.

[2] Read more in “How to bounce back from adversity” by J.D. Margolis and P.G. Stoltz, Harvard Business Review January-February 2010

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