Karen Reivich is an expert in resilience, a skill that’s become ever more crucial as the pandemic drags on. But even as she helped other people discover ways to feel complete, Reivich herself felt a sort of disconnect.
“There was a gap between what I do professionally and my own life,” she says. “What became transparent to me was that I wasn’t feeling whole.” Then, this past spring, Reivich, director of resilience and Positive Psychology training programs in Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, started taking pictures, at first with her cellphone camera and then with a DLSR she received as a gift from her husband.
She began by photographing what was physically in front of her—a tree, a flower—what she called the “obvious things” she encountered. Then one day, a few blocks from her house, she came across a partially demolished house.
“There was nobody there; half of the walls were already down. I went over to see what was happening. There was shattered glass and pieces of brick and jagged, broken floorboards and twisted metal. I was transfixed,” Reivich says. “The house was being torn down, but if you looked closely there was so much beauty. I befriended the construction workers and went every day for probably six weeks to see what changed overnight.”
It was a turning point for what became “Summer Fifty-Five,” a portfolio of Reivich’s images she named in recognition of her own 55th summer. She goes out daily, regardless of the weather, something she’s now been doing for almost 10 months.
Taking pictures has changed how Reivich sees the world. “When I started, I worried whether I’d see anything new, but I’ve come to understand and trust that, whenever I go for a walk with my camera, I’ll notice something I didn’t see before, even when I’m walking the same street day after day,” she says. “That stuns me still, and it’s meaningful. I think that’s true of everything, if you just allow yourself to be curious and open—about other people, the literal path you’re walking, yourself—there’s always something to spark curiosity and wonder.”
To others seeking a way to reconnect to themselves and the world, she recommends they ask themselves which positive emotions feed their soul. That doesn’t only mean what makes a person happy, she says. Many other feelings, including curiosity, gratitude, and awe, fall into that bucket, too.
Positive emotions connect us to something larger than ourselves, says Reivich. “When I stop to really look at dewdrops or even orange traffic cones, I remember and feel that I’m part of a world where there’s magic. I feel lucky to be on this planet at just the moment to observe those things. If we can answer for ourselves what positive emotions don’t just feel good but lodge within us and then stay open to experiencing those emotions, that can help sustain us.”
Reivich’s “Summer Fifty-Five” website includes dozens of images she’s taken during the pandemic. Fourteen are featured here.
All images above by Karen Reivich. Reivich is the director of resilience and positive psychology training programs for the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.