Emily Parker interviews Donna Gibbs about her life as a counsellor, her book 'Becoming Resilient', and the role that God plays in her work.

Donna Gibbs
Donna Gibbs

Emily: Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

Donna: I am a professional counsellor. I live in North Carolina and I spend my days working in the trenches with people who are hurting, who are struggling with all kinds of different issues they're seeking to overcome.

Emily: Why did you decide to go into a job like this?

Donna: It was just a tug of my heart; something that I felt that God had kind of created me to do, and something that I was good at and that could be a purpose in life. And indeed that is what has happened. It is a completely rewarding job to be in: to be able to walk with people from their darkest places into a place where they have some hope and encouragement. There's nothing I could think of that would be more rewarding than that.

Emily: What brought you to consider 'resilience' in the first place?

Donna: This topic came up because I saw a stream of clients, one after another, that seemed to be dealing with intense suffering. I've been doing this for 20 years so I've worked with a lot of people who've had trauma, difficulties, and suffering, but it seemed like things were becoming even more severe. The messages and the techniques for getting them from one point to the next were all the same. It occurred to me that if I could put some of what I encourage people in the quiet walls of my office, if I could put some of that to paper, then perhaps it could help more than just one person at a time. In terms of suffering, resilience is kind of the opposite. It is the opposite of being stuck in your pain. When we suffer, there is a certain vulnerability to being stuck. Sometimes we can be stuck for months, sometimes we can be stuck for years, sometimes even for a lifetime. So people come to counselling when they are stuck and they want to be unstuck and there's the word 'resilience'.

Emily: Why do you think, through suffering and loss, we actually have a default that means we end up in self-destruct mode?

Donna: In any situation, no matter what we encounter in life, we find ways to cope. And sometimes our ways of coping are very healthy and very constructive. Other times our ways of coping are more destructive. Those are generally times when we just want the pain to stop and we want it to stop now. So we take more desperate measures. We get stuck in different types of coping skills that are unhealthy and we don't even realise necessarily that we're stuck there. Other people will see it in us sometimes before we see it in ourselves. So using a healthier coping skill sometimes has to be an intentional process, but a very, very healthy process that gets you to a point of resilience.

Emily: So, what's the first step to dealing with pain?


Donna: This will sound very simple but I'm reminded even in the very last session that I had, an hour ago, that it is very hard. So the very first step is just to acknowledge your struggle, acknowledge your suffering. If there is something that you have encountered in your past that has been very difficult to process, very difficult to resolve, using the word for it can be hard. In fact even in my last session a client used the word 'rape' - that is a hard word for her to use. That is indeed what happened; a very violent rape. But using the word begins the process of suffering. Because then we tell the truth and we call it what it is. So if it's cancer, we call it cancer. If it is a death or a rape or a suicide or an abortion, whatever it is, we call it what it is. When we do that and we acknowledge truth it'll take your breath, it'll sting for certain. I've had people in my office who were physically sick when that happened. But there's something about verbalising it out loud that also takes some of the power away from it and begins to pave the way to the rest of the process.

Emily: Where in life have you seen someone stronger for facing these feelings rather than running away from them?

Donna: All the time, in the quiet walls of my office because this is what we do. We unfold those stories and we face the unthinkable things. And when you face it and then tell the whole story, not just of what has happened to you or the decisions that you've made that you regret, but we also have the opportunity to consider who God is and who He is in the midst of that pain. I say often that God is the author of resilience. Our job is just to cooperate with Him and to submit, all of us, to Him; not just ourselves, but also the suffering and the struggle that we've had. Submitting that to Him as well and He does a beautiful thing, I've described it like a formula; that your strengths plus your sufferings equal resilience. What that means is that you give God the things that you're gifted in, the things that you're strong in, the things that you're passionate about and you give Him your struggles, and your sufferings. And in a way that only God seems able to do, He marries those things together and creates a resilience. I think of it like a bouncy ball. Resilience means you end up at a higher point than you started. Indeed, your tragedies can propel you forward. Even if you've been thrown to the ground by something that you've encountered in life, you can rise above your pain. But it requires cooperating with God, learning to trust Him, learning to believe in Him. Then watching as He makes resilience happen.

Emily: Towards the end of your book you talk about different Bible people who have turned their suffering into purpose. Who are some of those Bible characters that really stand out for you?

Donna: My favourite Bible character in regard to turning suffering into purpose would be Esther. We hear of her named Queen Esther so at first glance it might seem that if she's queen, everything might have come easy to her. But indeed that is not her history, that is not her story. We know from studying the scripture that she was an orphan. She was held in captivity as a child. Then, in a twisted beauty pageant for the king, she was held in captivity there. There were many times in her life when she would have suffered and experienced trauma and loss, and yet there was also a time in her life in which it seemed obvious that she was in a certain position, and as the scripture says: "For such a time as this." So Esther's pain began to be used as a stage. She approached the king. There was a time in which her people were about to be annihilated if she weren't the one to step up and speak about it. And all of her strengths and all of her sufferings came together. And God used her "for such a time as this," in a beautiful way to provide purpose in a very timely period of her life and a very timely period of history.

I think of purpose in Esther's life but also in ours. We experience suffering, Esther did, every biblical character did and all of us do. If you're breathing and you've spent any time living you have experienced some kind of pain. But pain without purpose is just tragic. Pain without purpose is doubly tragic. But pain positioned for purpose brings resilience and that's what Esther did and I think she's a wonderful, a beautiful example of being able to turn around some of the painful experiences of life.

Emily: From reading Esther's story and from the different people that you've met over the years, for you, Donna, what does God's love mean to you?

Donna: That's a profound question. His love is hope - I think of that with a capital 'H'. Hope is a person. Hope is not just an emotion. His love is strong enough to carry you through whatever storm you are going through. I'll give you one example from scripture why I use that word 'hope'. In Acts, chapter seven there is a description of the stoning of a young man named Stephen. In that scripture it says that while he was being stoned, in other words he was being killed, and he was dying, he looked up and he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Now, all through scripture there are lots of times when Jesus is discussed, but He's always in a seated posture at the right hand of God. This is the only time I've ever seen in scripture in which His posture is 'standing' at the right hand of God. That seems to be a very symbolic posture. We stand for someone at a concert, we love their music, there's a standing ovation. We stand for a bride as she enters the room, or a judge as they enter the room; a family as they're entering for a funeral procession; the hallelujah chorus. There is a variety of things that we stand for and that standing means: I'm proud of you, great job. Or it could mean I'm angry about what I'm seeing. It is a powerful posture. So when I think about Stephen, I don't know exactly why Jesus stood but I do know this: Stephen's suffering had the attention of Jesus. And the same is true for us. If we're struggling, if you're reading this and you're hurting, your suffering has His attention. So when you say what does God's love mean to you, in the context of our discussion, that's what it means to me. He is close: our struggles have His attention and He cares deeply for us.

Emily: Donna, if anyone wants to get hold of a copy of the book how can they do so?

Donna: The book can be found anywhere books can be ordered online: all kinds of different retailers. You can google 'Becoming Resilient: Donna Gibbs', Amazon, christianbook.com. If you would like more information about upcoming events or becoming resilient or a weekly blog related to this topic, or just encouragement, this is provided nearly daily as well as an upcoming additional book release. I'd invite you to follow me on Facebook@donnagibbsresilience. I look forward to having you there. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.