Resilience is so important for building a good life. It connects with and serves deeper values and purposes. And yet often when I hear talk of resilience, I hear superficiality. Behind all the enthusiasm, I hear people seeking to deny their vulnerability. We need to get clear on what good resilience is, so that we do not pursue mere fantasy, or worse, pursue cowardice or egotism dressed in shiny words. Genuine resilience requires the cultivation of depth and compassion. True resilience is wisdom that is lived.
It is human nature to evade the realities of life. We do this as individuals, and mass-movements do the same thing. The resilience movement is always in danger of becoming a mass delusion. Take an example from my counselling experience: the people who talk most about resilience in a counselling session are often highly avoidant. To the eye of an experienced counsellor they are dripping in anxiety. They hide from their pain or vulnerability through talk of how suffering makes us stronger, how adversity can be turned into triumph, and so on. They do so precisely at the moment when they really need to look at their pain, loss, weakness and vulnerability. Their rhetoric of resilience is merely a smoke screen by which they hide from their own lives. This is common.
What we do to ourselves we do to others. At their worst such people embrace a pernicious logic: If I do things properly then I will be okay. That sounds well and good, perhaps, but look at the flip side: People who do badly must have brought it upon themselves. Now of course, that is often the case - it really does matter that we put in the effort needed to create a good life, facing both our external and our inward challenges. But more often such people are the victims of misfortune. These may be external misfortunes, or they may be inward, such as the damage done by an emotionally deficient childhood, or biological determinants. All these are out of a person's control. We are a mixture of freedom and determinism, and there is much that determines us. And now the unfortunate person suffers a double-burden, for they must also face the condescension or outright criticism of the resilience crowd and their self-protective fantasies that “good choices” and “hard work” give us greater control and security than it actually does. That is not resilience, it is cowardice. And cruelty. As it worsens it shades into narcissism. We need to get wiser about what good resilience is.
A century ago this verse was read at funerals: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.” The people of the nineteenth century lived closer to human realities, to the death and vulnerability that is the lot of human beings, always and everywhere. For this reason they were often wiser than us, for they had no choice - they had to confront life’s harshness with courage. For this reason they were also more resilient than us. As we can see from that verse, at its best their resilience included compassion for the afflicted - compassion for our human condition. True resilience recognises that much is out of our control, that we are at constant prey to misfortune, to chance. "Call no man happy until he is dead," said the ancient Greeks. They meant that a good life could always be undone by misfortune. Consider the good, wise, and just King Priam of Troy, who lived a blessed life until his final years, when his family was slaughtered and his city burned to the ground. Today we fantasise that life is always on an upward trajectory, but here is the truth: there is a limit to everything. There are declines and reversals also. We can fall through no fault of our own. While character and virtue make a great difference in life, like Priam we have no control over the goddess Fortune. If we have a human spirit within us - that is, if we love - then we can be crushed.
Some of the great heroes of modern times knew this. Here is Eric Greitens, himself a paradigm of resilience, in a letter to a veteran who was falling apart after returning home from war in Iraq:
Resilience is about how we respond to our suffering, to our weakness, our vulnerability. It is not about overcoming them, for invulnerability is impossible, and our strength is finite. Forget today's bullshit claims, shiny appearances, gym bodies, nice suits and successful appearances, latest science, clever life-hacking, the onwards and upwards talk that is secretly an evasion, and especially the contempt for those who apparently “make bad choices” or are “lazy” or need to think more "positively." Some of the most resilient people I have met live lives that are, by polite middle-class standards, an absolute mess. Often they started far behind the eightball, for example surviving ongoing sexual and emotional abuse. Their survival and ability to function reflects a long hard road of heroism and love and wisdom which far outstrips the "achievers" who, based on outer appearances, instinctively feel superior. The greatest things in life are often invisible. Our age of show and tell - our narcissistic age - is often blind to this.
What is the root of true resilience? It is true values - truth, goodness - and the cultivation of character, which is the habit of committing to such things so that in time they define your way of being. And why do we care about truth and goodness? Because we love. I don't mean love as infatuation, as good feelings, but care. We care for people, we care for the world. Love is care that strives to make things better. The truly resilient person is the one who does what is right. Who fights their own temptation, or the power of peer pressure, to stand by what matters. They stand by deeper values when the world around them or within them is crumbling. They also fall, for they too are vulnerable human beings, physically, psychologically, and morally, but they acknowledge the truth of what has happened, take responsibility for what they have done, and get back on their feet, turning their attention again to what matters. True resilience is the love of truth, and justice, and goodness, in how we treat the people we interact with. It is about bringing value into the world. It is a love of life. And, taking the Stoic phrase, it is therefore an amor fati: an acceptance of reality. Which takes humility, a quality which is a core virtue of the truly resilient. The energy of resilience comes from choosing genuine hope and love regardless of the mess of life, changing what we can while accepting what we cannot, including our messy, vulnerable, ashamed, and sometimes shitty selves. You cannot choose what will happen to you. You cannot avoid being knocked down when the force is sufficient. Or struggling with your own demons from a problematic past. But you can choose the spirit in which you will live, which you will steadily cultivate in the face of your misfortune, and this makes the most radical difference. This is true, wise resilience, and it is a beautiful thing.
Author: Matthew Bishop