How we think about resilience is vital to whether we achieve it. We need a realistic and helpful understanding. The trouble is that talk of resilience is often really a way of avoiding things. It becomes a mere mask. Genuine resilience connects with and serves deeper values, it increases the meaning we experience in life. But to cultivate it we need to start by getting clear on it.
The risk with talk about resilience is that it becomes a way of being non-resilient. That sounds like a strange idea but in fact it is very common. People will talk on and on about a virtue they lack, as though the talk bestows the thing itself. They will even criticise those who lack the virtue. This is hypocrisy, of course, but we do it without realising it, for psychological reasons. If the resilient person is able to face their fears, the person who talks a lot about resilience may do so to avoid facing their fears. I have seen this a lot in my counselling work. A person talks about resilience every time I try to talk about their fear, confusion, and pain. They are trying to shut me down with their talk.
Now, I view it as my role to help people find their strength in adversity, but this cannot be done by denying reality. Any resilience that is based on that is brittle. To the eye of an astute observer such a person is shaking with anxiety, no matter how well they appear to meditate, how many challenges they "crush", or how much they boast. Avoidance does not give strength. Courage and lucidity does.
What we do to ourselves we do to others. We deny our own vulnerability and tell ourselves we are strong as a way of avoiding the thing that hurts or frightens us. And when misfortune befalls another, we carry carry logic forward. Unfortunately this usually means that whereas we see ourselves as resilient because of our strength, we see the other as weak and to blame for it. We want to believe that if we do "the right thing" then things will go well for us, so when we see it go badly for others, we conclude that they did the wrong thing.
Let me be frank: this way of thinking is weak. It is cowardice. It is a common habit of people to deal with the world's complexity or with things that disturb them - such as the misfortune of others or the messiness of life - by feeling contempt for the other. By putting them down, as though they then exist in a different category to me. So that I can believe that what has happened to them will not happen to me. Again, this is not resilience. To be truly resilient is to be courageous and wise enough to face my vulnerability, and this makes me compassionate toward others in their vulenrability.
Today we fantasise that life is always on an upward trajectory, but in fact there is a limit to everything. There are declines and reversals also. We can fall through no fault of our own. While character and virtue make a great difference in life, there is much that is out of our control. Our strength has its limits. And if we are strong in one aspect of life, we may be weak in another. And often "weakness" is the wrong word, for we are simply affected by reality, as some of the great heroes of modern times knew. Here is Eric Greitens, himself a paradigm of resilience, in a letter to a veteran who was falling apart after the war in Iraq:
Resilience is about how we respond to our suffering, to our weakness, to our vulnerability. It is not about overcoming them, for invulnerability is impossible, and our strength is finite. Forget the talk of becoming "bulletproof", the shiny appearances, gym bodies, latest science, clever life-hacking, the onwards and upwards talk that is secretly an evasion, and especially the contempt for those who apparently “make bad choices”, are “lazy”, or need to think more "positively." Some of the most resilient people I have met live lives that, by polite middle-class standards, are an absolute mess. Often they started far behind the eight-ball, for example surviving sexual and emotional abuse. Their survival and ability to function reflects a long hard road of heroism and love and wisdom which far outstrips the "achievers" who, based on outer appearances, instinctively feel superior. The greatest things in life are often invisible. Our age of show and tell - our narcissistic age - is often blind to this.
What is the root of true resilience? It is values. A genuinely resilient life is one based on striving for truthfulness and goodness in our interactions. The truly resilient person is the one who fights their own temptation to stand by what matters. They stand by deeper values when the world around them - or within them - is crumbling. Of course they are limited and weak like all human beings, and the wrong kind of challenge can knock them down, but they take responsibility for this. And get back to living meaningfully. And that is the point: when we create a life that is meaningful and purposeful we find much strength. And that is true resilience.