Bouncebackability: Chewstick’s resilience really stands the test

Chewstick’s Gavin Smith with burnt-out guitar

Dreams in flames: Chewstick’s Gavin Smith with burnt-out guitar salvaged from the charity’s premises (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

I am saddened by the destruction and loss caused by the fire that swept through the Front Street building housing Onion Jack’s, several businesses and Chewstick.

I recall watching the fire from across Hamilton Harbour and feeling a heavy sense of helplessness as its fury erupted with dark, ghostly clouds of smoke casting a hot shadow over everyone. I thought of the firefighters battling this rage and felt a huge sense of gratitude for their courage and bravery. These strengths invisibly embraced me and comforted my sense of helplessness.

Through all of this, however, an extraordinary quality of resilience has emerged from the Chewstick family and all those affected by the fire. I had the pleasure of meeting Gavin Smith, Chewstick executive director and founder, several times as I helped my brother to prepare for his Chewstick art exhibition. Gavin’s passion, love and positive energy were contagious as he showed me around the new Front Street premises and shared his excitement about plans for Chewstick.

I immediately knew I was standing in the heart of something special for our community and was in awe of Gavin’s creativity, vision and hard work. My brother’s most prominent painting destroyed by the fire was entitled AWE — a feeling of wonder towards something extremely admired.

Sadly, my brother lost most of his art collection, but the irony of this was in the title of his Chewstick exhibition Positive Art — how positive emotions play an important role in building resilience. Little did we know at the time that these emotions would be the drip into the veins of resilience for my brother and the Chewstick family.

What is the definition of resilience? Resilience is what gives us the ability to bend without breaking (Cohn & Fredrickson, 2011). Resilience does not happen by magical force, but occurs when ordinary people discover their best or highest selves under extraordinary circumstances (Masten, 2011). It is the basic strength in a person’s emotional and psychological arsenal, allowing them to rise above potentially debilitating circumstances (Reivich & Shatte, 2002).

We all demonstrate resilient behaviour in our lives; however, truly resilient people have an extraordinary ability to deal with adversity, to survive stressful and painful experiences and to bounce back. This does not mean that they don’t experience pain, sadness or distress, but they make a space for these emotions, they honour them and then they recognise that they can move forward. They choose to muddle through and to transcend.

I have observed how the Chewstick family have taken the reins of positive movement forward and loaded their carriage with positive emotions and the following supplies necessary for building resilience:

  • Positive relationships. These relationships are at the heart of Chewstick. In a recent Royal Gazette article, Gavin said “Chewstick has always been about more than a physical space: Chewstick’s power, strength and inspiration have always been about the people that the organisation empowered and united. The mission of The Chewstick Foundation is to empower storytelling, creative expression and social justice to enrich youth, arts, culture and community.” Community is about people. Building and developing good relationships with others is key to increasing one’s emotional strength, which is important for building resilience. Through the smoke, the silhouette of support from our community is emerging and compassionately helping Chewstick to bounce back.
  • Managing stress. The Chewstick family, through their sadness and grief, have gathered their emotional resources and seen and acknowledged this crisis as something that is not insurmountable. This has triggered positive motivation to start their fundraising campaign and to move forward with creating a bigger, better version of Chewstick. Instead of becoming helpless, they have become hopeful.
  • Accepting change and being flexible. The Chewstick family have grouped together to support each other and surrendered to the fact that loss, or change, is a part of life. There are things in our life that are out of our control, and holding on to this is a waste of energy and hinders forward movement. Mother Nature played her part in the fire and they bowed with respect to her greatness while at the same time practising self-compassion and redirecting their focus on rising again. They have held on to their mission and their values and embraced change.
  • Inner critic. It would be so easy for the Chewstick family to listen to their inner critic, who would negatively advise them of the difficulties ahead. They could easily find reasons for giving up after years of hard work and after the financial loss they have suffered. Instead, they chose to think positively, to stand tall, to dust off the ashes and to tell themselves: “I can do this!” They have engraved the words “We are strong, united and will rise again”. Their inner critic has been replaced with their inner coach, helping them to take action and to commit to the achievement of their goal.
  • Optimism and perspective. How one looks at life, situations and events affects one’s behaviour. Our thoughts create our behaviour. How we view adversity strongly affects how we succeed. The Chewstick family have chosen to see the mountain of rebuilding Chewstick as a steep hill rather than a mountain. It will be a challenge to climb, but they are optimistic in their ability to climb it and to stake their successful achievement when they reach the summit. They view their loss as temporary rather than permanent.
  • Character strengths. Each and every one of us share unique strengths that can be drawn upon in our everyday lives. In times of adversity, these strengths help us to move forward and upwards. The Chewstick family have shown great strengths of love, hope, kindness, teamwork, zest, creativity, self-regulation, leadership and perseverance.

The Chewstick family have inspired me with their determination to forge forward with their vision to develop the arts as an effective tool to help build bridges in Bermuda’s diverse community.

Art, drama, poetry, speech and music are forms of artistic expression. Music lies within all of us — it is a part of our lives and is a universal language. In the words of Peter Gabriel, it is our “emotional toolbox”.

Resilient people have their emotional toolboxes fully stocked. As a community, I invite all of you to take a minute or two after reading this article to breath a few deep breaths, to be mindful and to ask yourself: “What am I grateful for today and what is going right in my day? What positive acts and thoughts will fill up my emotional toolbox?”

Thank you, Chewstick Family, for shining brightly and for reminding all of us to be grateful for all the beauty that lies within us and around us. Even through loss, you are living your Chewstick movement that is dedicated to breaking down barriers and providing opportunities for storytellers through their choice of medium.

You are living your mission to change lives by inspiring others to live their dreams. The stage for this may no longer exist in your premises, but certainly exists in your hearts — the beating of which inspired my story and, hopefully, the stories of many others. After all, each and every one of us has a story.

I look forward to celebrating the opening of your new location one day and to the sound of our community applauding when the curtains on your stage are pulled back once again to showcase your four pillars of principles: respect, freedom, love and truth.

Suzanne Morley is a certified cognitive behaviour and performance management coach and is studying applied positive psychology with an interest in positive relationship-building, and increasing wellbeing and happiness in individuals and in our community.