“All speech about the spiritual… is metaphorical speech.”–Soren Kierkegaard
What does resilience look like?
Media bombards us with images. But the truth is: we don’t know. The research isn’t final (not that research is the only way of knowing). I find it liberating that scientists don’t know the emotional processes that underlie resilience (Leys et al., 2018). So let me give you full permission right now to decide:
There are qualities we associate with resilience: gratitude, having a locus of control, balanced thinking… and for the right person, at the right time, these ideas have value. But if gratitude feels like an internal demand, is it really cultivating emotional resilience? Or just adding another defensive layer against feeling an unsavory emotion? Isn’t forced gratitude just another rigid control strategy? A way to avoid feeling our authentic experience? Sometimes these paternalist, top-down defenses get rather sophisticated.
So I don’t know what’s up for you, or where your developmental process is, but let’s keep an eye on ourselves! Keep the questions alive! I have so many questions. For example, is resilience a trait or – as I suspect – a state that can be nurtured into a trait with practice? Is resilience the product of adapting successfully to traumatic experiences, or can you practice it during times of safety and ease? Can resilience begin with awe, or is suffering always the portal? How do your resources (social, economic, internal, etc) affect your capacity to be resilient?
In general, I don’t have final answers to these questions, and I think that’s the point: to sit in the inquiry. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Rilke offered, “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves.”
My message today is existential, and hopefully empowering: You get to ask what resilience looks like and feels like – for you. You get to decide what resilience means – for you. Just for this moment. It can change tomorrow.
The more comfortable we get with living questions, the more comfortable we get with change—and doesn’t that sound like freedom, flexibility… even psychological resilience?
When we look to external sources to tell us what resilience is and what we have to do to get it, we outsource our power and operate from a metaphor of consumption. We assume that resilience is a fixed character trait, or something to be obtained, rather than a state, process, or way of being.
So just for fun, let’s pretend the art of resilience starts with a simple question: “What is resilience?”
If we love the question, we might keep wrestling with it. We might become intimate with it, then surprised and befuddled by our experiences. The conversation –internal or with friends- drives us. Embracing diverse stories around a single question can be oddly unifying, too – it builds community… and couldn’t that be a kind of social resilience?
What images and metaphors inform your idea of resilience? Does resilience mean having the grit and strength to grow through concrete? Does it mean being rooted in good nutrition and having a healthy relationship to a larger ecosystem? Does it mean being able to withstand more and more stressors without breaking? Is it a balance of strength and flexibility? Is it being grounded and centered in your spirit, purpose and values? Is it about having reciprocity in the relationships of your life?
The metaphors we live by (thanks George Lakoff for the phrase) play out before my eyes in fascinating and sometimes – when they’ve been outgrown – tragic ways. Perhaps different images appeal to us in different stages of life. These images deserve to be seen, excavated and periodically composted. I believe that when images become stagnant, there’s room for disharmony and dis-ease.
What if every person goes into the garden of their mind and digs up their own image of resilience? Can we share these images with each other? Can we watch them change over time? Can we compost them when they’ve run their course?
Maybe diverse ways of seeing reality could be our strength, our communal resource. Perhaps one person is resilient by grounding and centering, and another by getting sympathetically active and rushing to the front lines. All types of people – the thinkers, the doers, the artists, the activists – are needed in a thriving society.
For example, what if your boss sees “resilience” in the sense of adding weight to a bridge? How many stressors can be added before the employee breaks? Maybe they believe that the more weight you can take, the more resilient you are!
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that image, but do you agree?
I like to question the images that are informing a thought process. Your image might not match up to mine –they’re often unconscious. And how great! Diversity is healthy and wonderful!!
Personally my image of cognitive resilience is something like a thesaurus these days, having a broad vocabulary to nuance out the gray areas of existence without relying too much on the same heavily weighted words over and over again (“thank you”, “stress”, “unprecedented”… you get the idea).
So have fun with this– maybe grab some magazines, newspaper clippings, and a thesaurus and draw what resilience looks like – TO YOU. Discover the words that inform your idea of resilience. And when you look at those images, do they belong to YOU? Or were they inherited from your parents or someone else? You might be surprised what you find.
You get to choose what to keep and what to toss. Every day.
—-But don’t take my word for it.
Lakoff, G. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leys, Arnal, Wollast, Rolin, Kotsou & Fossion (2018). Perspectives on resilience: Personality Trait or Skill? European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejtd.2018.07.002
Rilke, R. (1929). Letters to a Young Poet