According to Google – resilience noun
1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
According to Merriam-Webster – resilience noun
1. the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2. an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change
According to the American Psychological Association (APA): “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.”
Ah. Bouncing back. These two words, I recently realized, allude to unrealistic expectations. I mean, can “bouncing back” be realistically expected of anyone affected by the horrific terrorist bombing at Manchester Arena? After bearing witness, being injured, and/or losing a loved one in such devastating and senseless fashion? “Getting by” is probably the best that can be done. For a long while anyway.
And yet, as I noted a while back in Humans Are Resilient, we humans are most certainly capable of resilience. Says the APA: “Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives.”
Perhaps what we need is a new definition of resilience. In her TED Talk What makes life worth living in the face of death, Lucy Kalanithi, widow of bestselling author, Paul Kalanithi (When Breath Becomes Air) tells us what resilience is NOT. “Resilience does not mean bouncing back to where you were before,” she says. “Or pretending that the hard stuff isn’t hard.”
After a potentially traumatizing life event, how can you possibly bounce back to where you were before? The landscape and you, the person, are too significantly changed. There is no returning. As I personally discovered after multiple losses of loved ones, there is merely the placing of one unsure foot after the other tentative one in hopes of uncovering a new shiny moment.
Google says “recover quickly” and Merriam-Webster “adjust easily”, but hard stuff takes time to digest and is, well, hard.
I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown recently and she loves to create her own definitions of words, but I couldn’t find one she’d created for resilience. So, here’s my crack at it:
Resilience is the patient act of turning any potentially traumatizing life event into an opportunity for learning and growth. Practicing resilience leads to expansion of the individual and consequently, the world at large.
The good news? As the APA pointed out, resilience is just “ordinary”. “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”
A massive (698 children) long-term (32 years) study in Hawaii conducted by developmental psychologist Emmy Werner and discussed in The New Yorker article, How People Learn To Become Resilient by Maria Konnikova, revealed that 1/3 of “at risk” children did not develop serious learning or behavioral problems. Why? Well, there were many elements at play, one of which was luck – having a strong bond with a caregiver, teacher or mentor-like figure. “But,” writes Konnikova, “another, quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment.” Here’s a sampling:
* autonomy and independence
* the seeking out of new experiences
* “positive social orientation”
* effective use of skill-set
Most importantly? Konnikova says, “. . . the resilient children had what psychologists call an ‘internal locus (position, point or place) of control’: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements.”
George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, who has studied resilience for 25 years, feels the key to being resilient lies in perception. From interviewing him, Konnikova writes, “Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it.”
Let’s get back to Kalanithi and her TED talk about her journey of losing her husband to cancer. She says, “We learned to accept both joy and sadness at the same time, to uncover beauty and purpose both despite – and because – we are all born and we all die.”
“We are all born and we all die.” Truth. “When we approach suffering together,” she continues, “when we choose not to hide from it, our lives don’t diminish. They expand.”
And expansion is good, yes? That’s what we’re looking for? Continuous improvement?
This short powerful poem Kalanithi shared about her feelings in the aftermath of her loss also speaks to the resilient individual permanently altered by love and loss.
by W. S. Merwin
Your absence has gone through me.
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.