What Exactly is Resilience, Anyway?
Updated: Mar 19, 2021
If you are a consumer of media or news of any kind, you've probably noticed that you can't go a day of scrolling without seeing the word 'resilience' pop up somewhere. From wellness to world politics, it seems the word has found an application in almost every field in the tumultuous times of the twenty-first century. So, is the ubiquity of this term a reflection of society's disdain for 'snowflake sensitivity' or is it a sign of something else?
Where it started
'Resilience' has its roots in the classic Latin verb 'resilire.' (re- "back" + salire “to leap”), which is defined generally to mean “to rebound, or spring back.” The term made its debut in the seventeenth century in the field of physics, and it was used to describe the "springing back, or recoiling" of matter. About 200 years later, psychologists adopted the term to describe the human ability to recover from or adapt to change.
Where it's going
Today physicists and psychologists are still using the term, but the term has also found application in disciplines ranging from ecology to emergency management. The word's varied use has unearthed a fair amount of churn over its correct place and application and an overarching concern that its overuse could reduce the term to fashionable lingo without much meaning at all. Personally, I think the prevalence and relevance of the term across industries and within so many areas of our lives, is proof, to me, of its growing importance. Turns out I'm not alone in that thinking. According to the Resilience Institute, 'resilience' has become so mainstream because it complements our current concept of holistic well-being.
Where it goes awry
Though this idea of resilience as a component of holistic wellness resonates for many of us, there are others who might suggest that prioritizing 'wellness' is itself evidence of a lack of resilience. In a society like ours, which often promotes a 'suck-it-up' approach, there is a tendency for some to characterize the vocalization of needs or expression of sensitivity as a lack of resilience. A New York Times article published in 2015, discussing "The Profound Emptiness of 'Resilience,'" points to an example of students who were labeled as "crybullies" for participating in protests against racism. The article goes on to quote Charles Murray, the conservative co-author of ‘‘The Bell Curve,’’ who tweeted, ‘‘[t]hese kids have no grit & the resilience of champagne flutes.’’
Contrary to Murray's assertion, an armored and unfeeling approach, that would enable unresponsiveness to adversity, is not 'resilience' at all. Impact must occur to produce the rebound/recovery inherent to 'resilience,' and students rising up against centuries-old inequities permitted by their institutions...well, I'd say that's quite the rebound from a severe impact. Furthermore--even though it's a tad off topic--'grit' is defined as a firmness of mind or spirit and a strength of character, which I would suggest is precisely what those students demonstrated. So, cheers to them!
Resilience and Vulnerability
Along the same lines, there is a misplaced tendency to conflate 'resilience' with the absence or elimination of feeling and vulnerability. 'Resilience' as an emergency management concept not only requires the recognition of vulnerability, but it also requires addressing/tending to those vulnerabilities. The National Academies of Sciences has defined resilience in the emergency context as "the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events." In order to prepare and plan for adverse events, one must understand the risks, their own vulnerabilities to those risks, and identify means of mitigating against those risks.
From this vantage point, 'resilience' is not solely an inherent trait of an individual, institution, or organization, but is instead something that can be built or improved. This 'resilience' is also something that is available to all individuals, institutions, organizations, or communities. This is the 'resilience' I want to help you cultivate for yourself, your family, and your community.