As a counsellor I see a lot of people who have been knocked down in life and who want to get back up. Their understanding of resilience can guide them and make a great difference. Likewise, unhelpful pictures of resilience can hinder people. So today I offer an understanding of resilience, and contrast it with a common misunderstanding.
The great Muhammad Ali once said, “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.” That’s the essence of it - of a proper understanding of resilience, versus the common misconception.
There aint nothing wrong with going down. Many people have this notion that to be resilient is to be invulnerable. That if you're resilient then you don't go down. For example, that you will remain calm throughout a personal crisis. And maybe you will. And maybe you'll do that because you're so resilient. But perhaps you won't, and yet you're even more resilient. After all, many people remain calm by means of a long habit of emotional suppression. To be like that is not to be emotionally strong, it's to be emotionally lacking. True resilience is a positive strength, something which integrates with healthy emotionality.
People have simplistic notions of resilience, for example that if this person is strong in this situation, and that other person struggles in the same situation, then the first person is resilient and the second one is not. The reality from the viewpoint of a counsellor is a little more complicated. The first person may be resilient in situation A but not in situation B. And the second person may struggle in situation A, may even go to pieces, and yet be very resilient in situation B. Who is the more resilient? It depends on the context.
The great philosopher of virtue, Aristotle, can help us make sense of resilience. Taking his famous example of courage, he would say that in order to exercise courage you need to face fear. That is, you need to feel fear, if you are to have a chance at also being courageous. Fear is what happens when you care about the things under threat, and know that the danger is real. The courageous person is alive to risk - they feel fear - and yet chooses to push forward nonetheless. The rash person on the other hand is not courageous, they are merely foolhardy. The difference between the coward and the courageous person is not that the first feels fear while the second does not, rather the difference lies in how each responds to their fear.
The same is true with resilience. It is not about not getting knocked down. It is about what you do when you get knocked down. Ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong. Do you stay down, or do you get back up? And what does that mean?
It means, what are you like afterwards? In the minutes, days, months, or even years afterwards?
How do you face your hardship?
Who do you become after your fall?
Do react to the knock down as the coward does to fear? Do you let yourself become permanently in despair or bitterness? Do you become mean or vengeful or manipulative or even just avoidant?
Or do you rise to life again? Perhaps becoming even better through your brush with life's lesson-maker?
I have a long-term notion of resilience. Life can be harsh and people cruel. And it can be beautiful, and people kind. Resilience regards the orientation that we strive for toward life, and that's a life which includes hardships and sorrow. And that striving may take time. You may fall down numerous times on the way to where you are determined to get, especially if the punch has really wounded you.
Indeed, I used to think that when we are really punched by life that we face a cross-roads. Do you choose hate or love in response to life's losses, betrayals, and tragedies? Now I see it differently. In certain kinds of loss or betrayal, for example, a person is often thrown into a state like bitterness, which can last for a long time. It is in that state that they need to make a choice. They have been knocked down into hell. Will they remain there and stoke the flames, or rise again back into life? If they decide to rise again, it can be like trying to climb out of a slippery well. It can be a very hard task. But of course, we are capable of it. I've never met a human being who wasn't.