Resilience: it has come to be one of those buzz words, a quality we seek to embody for ourselves, our children, our towns, our communities. It is that ability to withstand life’s scouring pad and boiling water, to emerge shiny, free from scrape or scald. Possessing the means to bounce back when the bowling ball thunders along the length of polished wood sending all of your tenpins crashing. It is something we admire in others, a quality we seek in our leaders: the capacity to rise up from a place of defeat and solider on regardless, expectant of change, ever resilient. C. called me this week to share a personal setback. Six of his pins had fallen, not the full ten; still and all, it was a setback. “I’m channeling Marcus Aurelius,” he told me, “the greatest Stoic leader in history.” There followed a short lecture down the line on the Stoics. They focused not on the external world but on what was solely within their control: their own thoughts, actions, and beliefs. For Marcus – Roman Emperor in the First Century – Stoicism provided a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as he led of one of the most powerful empires in human history. His was the doctrine of not succumbing to self-pity, drawing strength from the example of others, and focussing on the present. Or, to paraphrase what M. has said to me in the past, “Nobody likes a moaner; get on with it.” It was a lot more caring than it sounds.
Not to conflate two different concepts (I can hear C,’s chastisement already), but resilience and stoicism both embody a sense of enduring hard times, of not being ravaged by the storm. Yet, I wonder if these models are sometimes borne aloft like flags of convenience to avoid helping out; to sidestep meeting the needs of an individual or of a community? I think it sometimes used as a veil for telling someone to ‘man up’: “She is resilient, watch her come back from this.” We are not all built like concrete bunkers impervious to all that life can throw at us. Some of us are more akin to fine bone china, delicate as the best Belleek milk jug, while others are naturally more durable and can withstand having the full jug of milk thrown over them, and still rise smiling.
My question is whether or not the call for resilience is denying some of us our moment (or a lot longer than a moment) to lie in a puddle of spilt (or thrown) milk before we dry off? A positive attitude, innate optimism andthe ability to regulate emotions are all seen to be qualities that foster resilience – but hauling oneself back to a place of buoyancy takes time after being pulled under. The very idea of bouncing back up like a cork infers that there is constant movement and momentum, whereas, in reality, it is more normal for a person to require a period of lying in the depths before they bounce anywhere. And I am not just talking about the female of the species; I can assure you, The Cure were being ironic when they sang, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.
True or not that society is demanding greater resilience from us, I do think that the definition of resilience (the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness), had been broadened to encompass the idea of people learning, adapting, and taking on more. I recently read a quote from a harried GP, railing against being labeled as resilient: “Appalling workloads that are neither appealing or safe will not be cured with more ‘resilience’.” Yet it seems to be the fashion in the health, services and corporate world. Belfast recently appointed a ‘Resilience Tsar’. I’m not kidding. Beats me what they do but I’d love it if their name was Marcus or Marcella.
Just as we ought not to assume someone is buckling at the knees with the weight of whatever it is in life that has beset them, neither should we assume resilience, even if we desperately wish it to be the case. You’ll be glad to hear that C. is doing fine. He is both stoic and resilient. He’s neither waving nor drowning. Nor am I. I’m just thinking aloud. But it’s always worth giving someone that second glance to check how they are really doing.
‘Not Waving but Drowning’, by Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.