As a counsellor I see a lot of people who have been knocked down and want to get back up. Their understanding of resilience makes a great difference to how they do that. There are a lot of unhelpful ideas around, so today I offer a picture of what resilience is. True resilience takes us beyond escapist fantasies of being bullet-proof, or egotistical fantasies of heroism. Genuine resilience shows itself in how we are toward others, and what we make of life regardless of our strengths and weaknesses.
Muhammad Ali said, “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.” People sometimes think that to be resilient is to be invulnerable. That you won’t get knocked down. That you will become “bulletproof” as a contemporary advocate of Stoicism put it recently. An example is being calm in the midst of a personal crisis. Certainly this counts as an example of resilience, at least at face value, but we all have weak points and geneuinely resilient people can be knocked down or go to pieces. They are not always calm, and sometimes they are the opposite. This is because they have a heart. Resilience as an idea only makes sense in the context of our vulnerability and human weakness. Psychopaths are not resilient, they are simply unfeeling, and people who react calmly to a crisis may simply have shut down inside. For just as the rash person is not courageous but merely foolhardy – to be courageous means that you also experience fear - so too the resilient person struggles. Human nature is weak and life can be very cruel. Resilience can be about standing calmly in the storm, but it doesn’t require that; deeper resilience is about rebuilding after the storm. It is about getting back on our feet after we have been knocked down. That may happen quickly but sometimes it is a slow process. It is about what we do, in time, with what has been done to us.
There are people on Youtube who make bodybuilding videos and later expand into life-coaching themes such as resilience. They recognise the similarities between strength training and character training, just as the ancient Greeks did. This is good, but what worries me is the narcissism I detect in these videos. It is a subtle thing, but as I watch I get this feeling that resilience is some achievement to boast about, alongside the muscles which are clearly on display while the presenter pretends to be humble. In religion there is an age-old concept for this problem: spiritual pride -- a person goes through the motions of being humble, but they are proud of their humility. It is the pretense of humility, used as a tool in the service of pride. Such talk is the opposite of true resilience because it is about pretending to be something you are not. It is another way of believing we can be invulnerable. We want to believe that we are stronger and safer than we really are. But genuine resilience looks not only to our strengths, it takes account of our weakness. It changes what it can, and accepts what it cannot. Sometimes when I point out a person’s vulnerability in an effort to help them look at it and accept it, they respond with something like “I guess I am strong through my weakness.” I respond that “No, often we are just weak.” I say this because in the example I am thinking of, the person is trying at all costs to avoid acknowledging their vulnerability and helplessness. It is true that we can become stronger by acknowledging our weakness, and our vulnerabilities may shift, but ultimately they remain. This is especially the case with those ones that mark the human condition. What matters is how we live with them. Pretending that we are invulnerable by talking about resilience is a form of cowardice – it is a flight from anxiety, a refusal to come to terms with our condition. Just as your body has its limitations, so too does your mind and heart. That’s life.
What does it mean to get back on your feet? This is Muhammad Ali’s notion of resilience in the quote above, and I think he is right. Many people think of resilience as “bouncing back”. I think it is the wrong metaphor. They have borrowed the idea from physics where “resilience” refers to “elasticity”: the ability of an object to return to its proper shape after a strain. There is this myth that resilient people are like that, that they return to how they were before significant suffering. But we cannot go back to who we were before. When something changes our life, our life is changed. We are changed. We have to face facts, just as an injured person must take account of their new state. You cannot be the same person who you were before your partner died. There is no bouncing back, there is only moving forward. Not “moving on” but moving forward, which means moving through. You get back on your feet. It might take hours or years, depending on the catastrophe. In rarer cases it is a lifelong task. You learn to carry yourself again. And to tend to your wounds, co-operating with nature so that they heal as much as possible. You integrate the new reality into your life. You face your pain with wisdom and compassion. If you can do this, especially the last part, then you will become deeper and stronger as a person, even if you have been weakened in other respects. This is true resilience.
Jack Gilbert wrote a poem about his struggle with grief after the death of his wife, which captures this ethos of getting up and walking forward. It is called Michiko Dead.
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
Sometimes “that which does not kill me only makes me stronger.” Sometimes it makes me weaker. Regardless, it makes me different, and I can become better if I respond in the right way. I can learn through suffering. I can learn humility. Wisdom. Love. I can learn to be much more loving toward myself, compassionate toward others (including those whose affliction has made it is easy to criticise) and I can learn to appreciate life more. To be grateful and kind. In short I can become a better person, and one who is more happy. A person who can carry both sorrow and joy at the same time. That is true resilience.
So resilience is really an umbrella term for a collection of other qualities. Resilience is the exercise of courage, of kindness, of wisdom, and what these amount to will differ according to the situation. This is why I don’t use the word very much but rather speak of cultivating character through virtue, and growing in depth and love. The idea must be balanced with acknowledgement of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses as individuals and human beings. Otherwise the term risks becoming a defensive way of avoiding our fears and asserting our egos. Getting back on your feet, at its best, is an act of love and hope toward life.