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Responding to Adversity: The Example of Bobo Stokely

I said goodbye to Bobo Stokely a few weeks ago.

I met Bobo 30 years ago in a discussion group inside Attica Prison. He spent 32 years there, after a young life of hardship and crime. Bobo grew up in the Fort Greene Project in Brooklyn, one of seven children of an alcoholic father and a mother who he said, “couldn’t control me.”

By 15, he was robbing banks, and by his mid-20’s, landed in Attic with a hefty sentence.

Once inside the prison, something shifted in Bobo. He became more reflective, earned three college degrees, and became a trusted helper to the warden. Over the years, Bobo led hundreds of discussion groups among inmates and regularly counseled at-risk young people about crime, punishment, and personal responsibility.

When he was released 14 years ago, the Rochester Police Dept. called on Bobo to mentor teenagers who found themselves in serious trouble with the law.

He died having impacted thousands of lives.

I’ll miss Bobo, his engaging personality and colorful stories, and his connection with me and my family. He woke us all up to the reality of prison life, the backstory of incarceration, and the possibility of building a productive life against the odds.

Disadvantage and Resilience

As I remember Bobo, I remain in wonder about how an individual can arise from true disadvantage to become a role model for others.

Reflecting on his life story, I see a pattern – resilience in the face of challenge.

While it could reasonably be said that he was dealt a bad hand from the start, his resilience helped him find a different path. Eventually he turned himself around and consciously worked to build a meaningful life. As bad as his hardships were, his influence on others was somehow bigger.

There are many ways to apply the example of Bobo’s resilience to the hardships we face. Those hardships might take the form of a traumatic event, a personal setback or upheaval such as divorce, the death of an especially close loved one, or eviction, an illness or disease, an addiction, a panic attack, or a prolonged experience of being in a one-down position. One of the most relevant adversities at this time is the impact of COVID-19.

The Response to the Circumstance

How we respond to these challenging circumstances usually influences the outcome to a greater degree than the difficulty itself.

What these symptoms often have in common is inflammation – an exaggerated, anxious response to hardship and pain that becomes a bigger problem than the pain itself. Inflammation not only affects overly anxious organs, muscles, and joints. Perceptions and beliefs can also get anxiously inflamed.

Whether it’s an individual, a family, a company, or a nation, when the system gets too worked up, it attacks itself – an “auto-immune response” that makes resilience more difficult.

That’s why calming the immune response becomes a major focus of resilience.

How can we do it?

Let’s start with some good bets for individuals:

Slow down and pay attention to what’s really going on with a symptom. Stay connected to a circle of supportive relationships. Exercise, and do it outdoors whenever possible to benefit from fresh air and nature. Figure out how to stay open and flexible, even when the surrounding environment is anxious and tight.

Whether we act as individuals or in groups, our ability to handle adversity influences our very survival.

Here are some additional capacities that guard against over-anxious responses:

1. Develop an ear for exaggeration. Don’t let external voices or media dictate to you the severity of a problem. Think and decide for yourself. 2. Know when to be needy. The human condition is relational, not solitary. Isolation is not the same as “needing space,” and cutting off contact can be perilous. 3. As a necessary companion to 1 and 2 above, self-define. Decide what’s important to you and work to build self-agency: “I can do this.” “I have responsibility here.” 4. Follow the healing wisdom of the ages: slow the pace, take an active part in the solution, and keep things in perspective.

I don’t know where Bobo Stokely found his resilience. I don’t know how he managed to rise above his disadvantage to earn the trust of a prison warden and the law enforcement system, and to positively influence so many at-risk youth.

What I do know is that his example invites me to put less worrisome attention on challenging circumstances, and more determined attention on how I respond.


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