As a counsellor I see a lot of people who have been knocked down in life and want to get back up. Their understanding of resilience can guide them and make a great difference. But unhelpful pictures of it can hinder people. So today I offer a conception of resilience that is truer to life, and which constitutes something deeper than the common misunderstanding.
Muhammad Ali said, “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”
That’s the essence of it. Read on only if you want me to flesh that out.
There “aint nothing wrong with going down.” Many people have this notion that to be resilient is to be invulnerable. That you won’t get knocked down. For example, that you will remain calm amidst a personal crisis. And maybe you will, and maybe that will be because you are resilient; strong in the storm. But many people remain calm merely because they’re emotionally dead or suppressed. That’s not strength, it’s a lack. True resilience is a positive virtue, something that integrates with emotional health and maturity.
Maybe you are resilient, in the sense of calm and together in a personal crisis, and maybe you are not. If you are not, it has to do with the fact that you are human - that you care, that you are vulnerable. But maybe you are resilient in other ways. Maybe you can be present for others - for example you can show up, emotionally, for your family - whereas the person who is cool in a crisis, is overwhelmed and shut-down when at home with their family. As I wrote elswhere, courage is uneven.
The great philosopher of virtue, Aristotle, can help us make sense of resilience. Taking his famous example of courage, he would say that in order to become courageous you must face fear. Fear is an expression of caring, and of seeing the risks. The courageous person is alive to these, and chooses to push forward nonetheless when necessary. The rash person on the other hand is not courageous, they are merely foolhardy.
The same is true with resilience. The genuinely resilient person may struggle to exercise the virtue, and certainly it will uneven in them. It can be about standing calmly in the storm, and that is a fine form of it which is worth striving for, but resilience doesn’t require that and it can take other forms. Indeed, much of the deeper resilience I see, shows itself after the storm. “Ain’t nothing wrong with going down.” What matters is that we back on our feet after we have been knocked down.
And the question is: what does getting back on our feet mean?
Muhammad Ali meant that you can be knocked down in a fight, and get back up. Or Get be knocked down in a series of fights, perhaps in your career, and still get back up in life. It is not about being impervious - and this from the heavyweight champion of the world - rather it is about what you do afterward. And this means accepting that your stregth is uneven, that it has limits, within you as an individual, and as a human being. In some bouts you stand strong, while in others you get knocked out of the ring. But what are you like afterwards? In the minutes, days, months, or even years afterwards?
The fact that I say that the emotionally dead, suppressed, or unavailable person is not truly resilient, suggests that there is more to it than some crude notion of being calm or impervious. True resilience exists with fear, vulnerability, with falling down. “It’s staying down that’s wrong.” The only reason I value Ali’s words is because I think he means something more - something deeper - than boxing. It’s about more than fighting. It’s about spirit.
In what spirit do you face your hardship?
Who do you become after your fall?
Do you die inside? Do you suppress the life in you? Do you become unavailable? Do you despair, or become bitter? Do you become mean or vengeful or manipulative or cowardly?
Or do you rise to life again? Perhaps even becoming better?
Essentially, I have a long-term notion of resilience. Life can be harsh and people cruel. And it can be beautiful, and people can be so too. Resilience regards the orientation that we strive for, toward life, which includes a life with hardships and sorrow. The fundamental decision that constitues true resilience in the context of pain or despair, is to orient oneself toward life in a mode of hope. And love. And courage. And compassion. And gratitude. And self-respect. And strength. That’s not about being bullet-proof. It regards what you do when you are hit, including after you have been knocked clean out of the ring.
And that may take time.
And it may be very hard. I used to think that such a person was faced with a cross-roads. For example, they could choose bitterness, or love and openess. Now I see it differently. In certain kinds of loss, or deep betrayal, they are thrown into states like bitterness. It is then that they need to make a choice. They have been knocked down into a hell. Will they remain there and stoke the flames, or rise again back into life? That can be no easy task. And it may require ongoing work and maintenance.
I would like to make one last point. I have discussed resilience in the face of hardship, of getting knocked down, but I think that that is only part of it. Resilience also manifests in good times. What do I mean? People can protect themselves in life by expecting the worst. By never taking a chance. By playing it safe, and so playing it meanly - cheaply and narrowly. Many of us were raised this way, and our parents were raised that way, and so on. There’s nobody to blame - life can be harsh, and people adapt emotionally, and hand that down both as unconscious patterns and as wisdom for hard times. “Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.” But there is a different way. If this describes you, to whatever degree, then beyond coping well with hardship, resilience may manifest in the way that you overcome such deep negative instincts, and instead build. In how you create. In how much you dare to hope, and ask for, from life. In how deeply you commit to the good and the possible. At root, that can feel terrifying for many people. As though by taking wing in this way they will surely be punished. So it takes a whole set of virtues. Faith, hope, and love, as secular or spiritual virtues are primary among these. This is resilience taken to the next level. At which point we need a different word. Like flourishing. A notion of creating a rich life. I will write more about this later.