Resilience has to do with the habits and practises we all need to develop which help us to cope in times of stress and adversity; it has to do with survival in a time of crisis. This is well and good when we define crisis as a temporary episode of difficulty or threat or, in the words of the Oxford English dictionary ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger’. However, when crisis becomes the fruit of an ideological position which severely negatively affects, on a continuous basis, the lives of some and not others and we expect those affected to become resilient then it seems to me we have a problem; we are no longer talking about an unavoidable crisis to which a valid response would be to build resilience, but we are speaking of a state of affairs or a status quo which produces unequal and unfair outcomes for citizens of the same state/federation/planet. To promote resilience under these circumstances can in effect affirm the very structures which produced the crisis for some and not for others.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger’ and this saying so easily settles neatly and largely unchallenged into the stoical sub-consciousness of the post-industrialised mind, along with an array of modern idioms like ‘no pain no gain’ ‘you win some you lose some’ ‘take it on the chin’ ‘take the rough with the smooth’ and so on. These phrases have shaped the way we think about adversity and how we may respond to it, but they offer us no guidance as to what constitutes legitimate* adversity to be endured and overcome and what constitutes (avoidable/illegitimate?) adversity, the causes of which need to be understood clearly and resisted or reformed. If Nietzche were to smoothly tut out his famous dictum to my son or daughter in the face of the latter’s protestations against the tedium and existential crisis produced by doing homework or learning to tie their shoelaces it would have wildly different resonance than if he were to belt out the same dictum to a line of child slaves weaving carpets. Yes, both the child slave and my own child would need to develop resilience but the reasons for the need for resilience are different; it is this which needs to be scrutinised.
When words and phrases become mobile and slip into use across an increasingly wide range of contexts they can become problematic, it seems to me. When they then fall into the hands of policy makers and politicians they can become dangerous. A word like resilience can, at best and in a legitimate context, be helpful and appropriate, but in another, it can take on rather ideologically-weighted meanings (I’m hoping that some of my socio-linguist friends will offer some further explanations!).
Recent research published by Kristina Diprose and summarised in her report ‘Resilience is futile: The cultivation of resilience is not an answer to austerity and poverty’ addresses the impacts of using the word resilience with an emerging generation of young people. She notes that
The mainstreaming of resilience in policy and politics coincided with the onset of – and long process of recovery from – the worst recession to hit the UK since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It also coincided with a sustained austerity drive from government; the first domestic manifestations of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and a seemingly irreparable standard of living crisis. A generation came of age and abruptly learned to lower its expectations. Resilient communities, resilient sectors and resilient people are required to suffer these troubled times. In this context, resilience resonates more as a statement of survival than of aspiration – and one that entreats people to consider man-made crises as mysterious tests of character.
Whilst she concords with others that resilience, resistance and reworking are all useful contributors to social and political transformation, she goes on to warn that in the light of her own research resilience can prove to be less than effective in the longer term:
Resilience is a way of encouraging people to live with insecurity because the status quo is deemed insurmountable. Thus conversations about climate adaptation and economic adjustment are dominated by discovering how storms are to be withstood, for they are presumed inevitable. An ingenious disregard for living within limits is how people change the world; but energy diverted to resilience leaves little time for dissent and asking difficult questions. Resilience is reactive and distracts from legitimate indignation. It fixes people to the present, hiding the history that fashioned beggars and kings and proves all imaginable change possible.
It seems that the problems begin when we accept a state of affairs as an unavoidable crisis rather than an avoidable and reformable product of human decision-making; after all, who in their right mind would recommend that an undernourished child, no longer able to cope with the cognitive activity of a school day find ways of becoming resilient in the face of their parents gambling habit? Imagine if schools set up ‘dumpster-running’ as an extra-curricular activity for such children in order to re-skill them in urban-foraging for survival. Would that not seem oddly irresponsible and a failure to intelligently address the reasons for the child’s suffering?
What that child and what many who are currently being encouraged to become ‘resilient’ and ‘buck up’ need is for those who peddle resilience to turn their attention to the concept of ‘flourishing’ rather than ‘survival’. For too long it seems, we have been affirming the law of the jungle; ‘the survival of the fittest’ mantra has shaped the way we think about life in a detrimental way and has made us accept the unacceptable.
The biblical model of managing and imagining community repeatedly re-connects with themes of ‘flourishing’ and ‘well-being’ ‘wholeness’ ‘health’ and legitimate (ie. not by foul means and well-stewarded in the wider community) ‘prosperity’. In spite of the fact that the biblical community (the Israelites or in the NT the Jews), itself often endured periods of genuine and severe crisis, their guiding vision was one of flourishing and abundance for all. The principles of holistic stewardship and the disciplines of wisdom contributed to and maintained the ‘good life’ rather than ‘resilience’. Perhaps this is because, in the wisdom of the scriptural tradition, social and political crisis was not seen as an unavoidable threat or inevitable state of affairs to be endured but rather as a the outcome of a set of simple human decisions which could be resisted and reformed…even if…for rather a lot of prophets it meant losing their head in the process.
Of course, we are not operating in a theocratic state but we are nonetheless sharing the planet with billions of other people and we need to ask ourselves if the concept of resilience (rooted in a scarcity/survival or crisis paradigm) is an adequate or appropriate one to promote the kinds of changes which will be required to enable the flourishing not only of humanity but of all of creation? Of course, there are many aspects to life which are a blend of crisis and challenges and possibilities which need to be navigated wisely and where both moments of resilience and flourishing can rightly be anticipated.
I leave you with another quote from Kristina Diprose:
Resisting resilience does not mean giving up. Quite the opposite – it calls for more courage. Imagine if the time and effort invested in future-proofing ourselves was instead given to fully occupying the present, and to more determinedly realising the change we want to see. The road to recovery is not easy, but with so many people in our communities pushed to breaking point, what other option is there? We can do better than survive: we need to reconnect with our conviction, and bounce back from the brink.