the physical property of a material that can return to its original shape or position after deformation that does not exceed its elastic limit.
an occurrence of rebounding or springing back.
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
Resilience is a big word right now. There are studies about teaching resilience and grit to children in schools. Which I think is awesome, and much more helpful to becoming a functional human than understanding geometry, or even global politics.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband died suddenly two years ago, is making the media rounds speaking about her new book and foundation, Option B, which “helps people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.” I admit that there is a part of me that is resistant to the idea of a celebrity making this into a movement – giving us collective permission to grieve properly and in our own ways through our losses, and teaching the world around us how to better support us. I’ve been talking to some of my friends who have also lost young children and our conversations seem to go like this: What do you think of this? Haven’t we been going there for years now? This stuff – this really tragic, really hard, really bad stuff happens so much more than people want to know. Why does tragedy need to happen to a celebrity for it to become okay for our society to finally talk about it?
But the nagging feeling I get when I look at the Option B website is this: Do we have to make something out of our losses, our challenges, our trials? What happens if we don’t?
I think most of the time, when it happens – when we develop resilience – it’s not because we did anything. It just happens. And sometimes it doesn’t, and the hard things are just hard, and they suck, and you don’t come out the other side feeling more capable of handling anything that might come next. You are just tired and you want to shout, Enough already! This effing blows!
And that’s okay. You are not a failure if you don’t come out the other side of your awful tragedy feeling stronger, wiser, or more resilient. You are not better than with resilience than you are without. There is nothing about resilience to be proud of. Resilience doesn’t have to be the goal. In fact, there doesn’t have to be any goal when life is hard except getting through a day.
Recently I had the thought that I have earned my resilience out of all that I have suffered or struggled through or overcome. But have I really? Or did the resilience I have just develop on its own? Maybe it’s even something I came into this life already possessing.
I just don’t know that I buy the notion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger or more resilient. The idea that we are transformed into better people out of what we have lost, what we have grieved, what we have suffered. Because I would give up my resilience and strength and wisdom in a heartbeat if it meant that my baby didn’t die eight years ago and instead was a healthy girl about to finish third grade and celebrate her ninth birthday. Or that my parents hadn’t turned my world upside-down at age 15 when they divorced. Not to mention how quickly I would give back the autoimmune condition I have struggled to live a normal life with for 20 years.
Because living children are better than resilience. And physical health is better than the emotional strength gained from surviving an illness. And a stable family of origin is better than the wisdom I gained from being independent and responsible beyond my years as a teenager. All those hours in therapy and doctor’s offices and the neonatal intensive care unit took a lot of time, energy and money I would joyfully have spent otherwise. Like on a beach in Hawaii.
I get it: The human search for meaning, especially building meaning out of adversity. It’s what keeps us moving forward. It helps us to rebuild. Otherwise nothing makes sense, and it all feels like a big cruel joke.
But what if we can let it be okay to just live through adversity and arrive at the other side cracked, or even completely broken? What if we don’t have to overcome or become stronger, but just figure out a way to put one foot in front of the other and wake up each day feeling a little less shitty than the day before? What if there will always be a part of you that is keeping an eye over your shoulder for the next unexpected kick in the back of the head?
This is the thing: I don’t think we bounce back out of adversity to how we were before. Adversity changes us completely, forever. Even in our cells, our DNA. (see: epigenetics)
I think the idea of rebounding or springing back – which is often part of conversations about resilience – can be a setup for feeling 100% like a failure, even if you do manage to come out the other side a little stronger. You don’t bounce back because there is no back to go back to. You just do your best to move forward, maybe evolve a little, maybe transform a little – or maybe you just find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, hardly able to recognize yourself, but accepting your changed self anyway. Because that’s your only option.
That kind of acceptance can require an enormous amount of forgiveness. Towards ourselves, mostly.
Maybe – not even by doing anything intentional – you even exceed your elastic limit, and you become bigger. Not better, just more expansive. Because we aren’t static. Even when we feel like shit, part of that feeling comes from knowing that there is something that feels just a little bit better. Even if we don’t exactly know how we might get there, or if we even want to.
After I lost my baby daughter, people would say things to me like,
I just don’t know that I could survive what you’ve survived.
You’ve been through so much.
With all you’ve been through, how are you as grounded and balanced (as you seem to be; meaning: How are you not a bitter, angry mess?)
You’re so strong. (Meaning: From now on, this is how we expect you to be.)
You’re so wise. (Really?)
And I would reply, But you would survive. Because you just do. Because you aren’t given any other choice.
I’ve surprised myself with what I can survive. People around me surprise me constantly, too. Friends and family battling cancer. My refugee clients at work. Everyone I know who lives with a chronic illness. I just don’t know that surviving is any great feat. It’s just what we do when shit happens.
I don’t get knocked down easily anymore.
I have survived “the worst” already, but I also know that doesn’t mean there definitely isn’t any more “worst” to come.
I know that I can handle what life is going to dish out next.
Maybe partly because of resilience, because of strength, because of wisdom.
But mostly because I just know I have to.
Perhaps that’s all resilience is. One step in front of the other. Forgiveness. And being really, really gentle with ourselves and each other.
Because life is hard, and it can be good too. That much I believe.