In the face of these unprecedented, ridiculous, amazing, horrifying circumstances, it feels like a lot of old ideas are up for review. One of those old ideas is resilience, a subject I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Clearly, we need some. But what will that look like?
I did an informal Facebook poll to see what the word resilience brought up for other people. Some of the definitions that my friends used were things like strength and toughness. Resilience is often seen as plugging away even though the odds might be stacked against you, a sort of perseverance or doggedness. And that doesn’t quite ring true for me in these times because it feels like an armoring, a way of warrioring through. Active doggedness might even be a way to escape what we’re feeling, a procrastination borne of anxiety. What I’m finding as I rattle around my house with my feelings is that armoring isn’t the answer for me. I don’t feel better when I stiffen my upper lip. In fact, that’s kind of exhausting. I feel better when I share real feelings with people who care. When my friends and I ask each other how we’re doing, we don’t want to hear a deflective “Fine fine, I’m being tough. Everything’s good. How are you?” That feels disingenuous somehow. We actually really care and want to know, and we’re checking to see that not alone in feeling angry, fragile or devastated, or even hopeful.
Someone else on Facebook suggested that resilience is the ability to bounce back. But “back” may not be an option. Because of this disaster, we’re seeing all of the holes in our nets, all of the ways that huge numbers of people were not okay with “normal,” how tenuous it all was in the first place. It would seem like a wasted opportunity to have this insight now and not make use of it. And a lot of us won’t be able to bounce back, because back isn’t there anymore. The business, the job, the savings, the sense of family, the peace of mind, the full health might be gone. So there is no complete bouncing back.
I read one definition, from ecologists B.H. Walker and David Salt, as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance.” System in this case meant the environment, but perhaps it can be applied to a society or community — or each of us individually.
Our personal capacity to absorb disturbance is largely based on our past experience. Essentially, we learn resilience by being resilient. We learn from past situations and collect skills for handling hardship. But our resilience might be hampered if we’ve already been traumatized or have disadvantages. Disturbance is harder to absorb, for instance, if you are living in poverty, have substance use issues, unhealthy or unstable relationships, and so on. So our past experience can both expand and limit our capacities for resilience.
I’ve experienced both the expansion and limitation. I was downtown on 9/11 and developed PTSD, and in 2003 I started working for a long-term recovery foundation and spent five years there. And I’m recognizing a lot of the feelings that are coming up now, like I’m being visited by some old frenemies. Feelings like dissociation and a creeping anxiety that sneaks up on me at random times. But I’m also able to look at the things that helped — or didn’t help — during those years so that I can take care of myself now.
It didn’t help me to drink a lot. I ended up feeling all the same emotions, just with a hangover. Too much media was also harmful for me. I didn’t need to read the 9/11 books or see the movies, and I didn’t benefit from watching that one more news report.
I also know that I’m traumatized and that ignoring it won’t make it go away. I went three years without treatment for PTSD and it was the worst time in my life. Trauma doesn’t operate like a stomach bug, unfortunately; you can’t just wait it out. I needed specific therapies for resolving trauma then, and I will again now.
Trauma is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. It’s a fairly predictable response to something that overwhelms our systems, and to some extent, I’m pretty sure most of us are dealing with some trauma right now. This crisis affects our personal nervous systems, but also our larger economic and social systems. We’re still going through those abnormal circumstances, which means it may be a while before we can fully understand the scope of our trauma or really begin the work of healing it. Knowing this actually helps me to be patient with myself and others.
What has helped me, both in the 2000s and today, was making sure I got human connection even when I didn’t want to. I’m always better when someone checks on me or I on them. It’s also helped me to listen to spiritual and secular teachers who have some wisdom and give me some hope. Listen to the resilient people if you want to be more like them.
Service also helps. The days I feel best are the days when I can be of some service. In the 9/11 days, a colleague was feeling sad and conflicted about the fact that we had to do this work, how unfortunate it was to have this mess to clean up. And a pastor friend said, “So many people wished that they could do something, that they could find a way to help. And we get to. We don’t have to help — we get to. We’re the lucky ones.” That reframe has stuck with me. However hard the days were, I was a lucky one who had the chance to be of service. I’m looking forward to doing that some more.
The bonus in offering service is that we build someone else’s capacity for resilience, too.
What’s in your resilience toolbox? What’s been working for you these days? What doesn’t work at all? How might you serve, either in the short term or the long term?
Underneath whatever revised definition we make come up with for resilience in the days ahead, for me there is an even bigger question: why be resilient? What is it that asks us to keep going? Some people might want to be resilient for the sake of their families or their work in the world. I think most of us simply want more life. We don’t feel done yet. There’s something so beautiful and holy about that desire to have more life, and something sacred in wanting others to have it, too.
Mooji offers a very simple practice in which he suggests that we walk around our homes with our hands in a prayer gesture. He says it’s impossible to have negative thoughts or be unkind when you’re in that posture. This is only for our private spaces, not out in the street as something performative, but eventually, after we practice at home, we naturally hold this attitude of kindness and reverence in our demeanor. We extend it towards everything and everyone even with our hands at our sides.
As I’ve been practicing, I notice I come right back into my body when I spin out. I remember to breathe and be present where I am, sometimes even with some sense of wonder and gratitude. I acknowledge the tea kettle, my houseplants, the meal in front of me, this computer that’s keeping me connected. I remember that it’s good to have this life right now, right here, with the people who are in it, exactly as things are. I don’t want to miss a moment of this experience, even if we’re living in a mutilated world.
The ability to hold onto that desire for more life, to share more life, even as everything changes, will help us to be incredibly creative as we go through this resilience process together. With kindness, reverence, and service, we are the reason we will be okay.