Thoughts on Resilience

In preparation for a workshop I will be leading at Many Gods West I am contemplating resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as: “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.”

An orientation toward resilience assumes that one will meet adversity, trauma, tragedy, or stress at some point in life. A blade of grass is resilient because you can step on it, and once the pressure’s off it will eventually return itself to its original angle and shape, or one close enough to keep getting sunlight. A pack of wolves is resilient because it can keep itself intact, responsive, and generative even when it loses members. Forests are resilient when a diversity of species contributes to the ecosystem—if one species suffers significant disease or loss, others could pick up the slack.

All of these models of resilience have limits, of course—paving over the grass will likely override its resilience. Even then, over time as the concrete breaks up and tiny cracks form, life will emerge. The concrete itself has a certain amount of resilience, but lacking life and people willing to invest in infrastructure maintenance, it will inevitably break apart and never put itself back together.

From sandy ground, a tiny plant grows, casting a long shadow.

Photo by Evan Kirby.

Life rebounds. Life repairs itself. Life adapts even to the greatest stressors. If we identified with life itself, thinking through the history of the organism on Earth from the first DNA strands weaving together in some ocean to my fingers typing on a keyboard, life is amazingly resilient. Our species is quite resilient, able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems, catastrophes, food sources. Though we can look at history and see some remarkably self-destructive behavior, in sum we are a species geared toward survival—and not just our own personal survival, but the survival of our groups, of things greater than ourselves.

Here I approach spiritual thinking, but spirituality offers much in terms of resilience. Ritual binds people in an experience of shared meaning and connection with something larger than the self—such as community, nature, deity, or a personified ideal. An intention for one’s life, a commitment to a cause, service to a community or deity, close personal relationships, even a beloved pet may be enough to keep us going through the hard times until we recover.

Though excessive pain and trauma is overwhelming and not desirable, being resilient isn’t about a life free of pain and hardship. Avoiding conflict, hardship, discomfort, and painful experience decreases resilience. Our muscles become stronger when they’re torn apart in concentrated exercise, then allowed to rest and rebuild, then torn apart again.

When I was a barista, I became rather inured to scalding hot water. In my early days, if I spilled the water on my skin, it would obviously hurt a ton and I’d stick my hand under the cold faucet water and shout at my coworkers, “We GIVE that to people to PUT IN THEIR BODY!” After three years, I would simply shake the water off and keep going, then remind myself it was still a good idea to apply the cool water. We can become too insensitive to pain and damage which will affect our long-term resilience in other ways.

We need rest and challenge, and sometimes we need one when we most think we need the other. When I get too comfortable and too fearful of leaving my house to do something challenging, that’s usually the time I need to push myself to take a risk. Likewise when I get super rigid in my practices and keep forcing myself to do things even when it’s hurting my body, that’s often a time when I need to relax, rest, or make a change.

One practice that helps is articulating and returning to intention. If my intention is to run a marathon, then my practices around becoming stronger and giving myself rest should serve that intention. If I get injured, I would want to follow my healer’s recommendations but all in service to the goal of running a marathon. Perhaps I reach a point where that intention no longer seems worth the pain and effort, but then that points to whether I have an even larger intention that running a marathon may or may not serve. Do I want a life filled with exciting experiences? Do I want a life where I live long enough to see great-grandchildren?

Perhaps you can’t state an intention today, because you’re not sure what you want. That’s okay. It can take a while to figure it out, and perhaps the intention today is to explore possibilities until you figure it out. One thing that helps me is to ask myself, “What quality do I want to experience (or express) in my life?” Then sit and listen. Maybe all I get today is a bodily sensation that I cannot name, but even that’s information. It might be the quality I center around, what I seek out and nurture in my interactions. The crushed grass perks back up, pointing toward the sun. This quality could be the sun you seek.

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