Questioning (and Deepening) the Narrative of Resilience
Oceans away from my Lebanese home, the explosion-images of devastation and fear still rattle inside me. The witnessing at a distance both a vicarious trauma and a trauma of its own. I won’t recount today the uncomfortably familiar psychological and physical responses that came up in the moments the news reached me, and in the many moments of the hours and days that followed. If you are part of the Lebanese Diaspora, you know these responses. If you’re in Lebanon, those responses are multiplied unfathomably. They are knitted tightly into the fabric of existence. They wait knowingly in the wings. They are a nervous system spike away from mobilizing into action.
Those reactions are the reason why today, I want to talk about Resilience. This word has been coupled with the country and people of Lebanon since at least the Civil War. It is the word that underlies the narrative of Lebanon as a Phoenix, endlessly and always rising from its ashes. An empowering concept. Except when it isn’t. Let’s explore why.
The Superhero Effect
According to a Psychology Today article, one definition of resilience is the “capacity to cope, adapt, and maintain psychological and physical performance following a traumatic event (Scali et al., 2012)”. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, in their book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, describe resilience as a muscle that activates during difficult times and relaxes during times of ease. But can it be activated the wrong way? Too much? For too long? A Harvard Business Review article, The Dark Side of Resilience, asks that very question. The conversation they have clearly illustrates some tipping points.
“Large-scale scientific studies suggest that even adaptive competencies become maladaptive if taken to the extreme. In the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances, some people resemble a superhero cartoon character that runs through a brick wall: unemotional, fearless, and hyper-phlegmatic. To protect against psychological harm, they deploy quite aggressive coping mechanisms…
…when taken too far, it may focus individuals on impossible goals and make them unnecessarily tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances. This reminds us of Voltaire’s Candide, the sarcastic masterpiece that exposes the absurd consequences of extreme optimism: “I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?””
That snake that we fondle while it devours us? It’s us, being resilient through processes of denial, avoidance, dissociation, compartmentalization, intellectualization, projection, and relentlessly ungrounded optimism. Now don’t get me wrong- these defenses I just mentioned- they aren’t bad. They are some of the best means of coping people have learned to survive in otherwise unsurvivable circumstances. As French psychologist Boris Cyrulnik expresses “A traumatized subject can be so overwhelmed and submerged by information that he or she cannot respond to a confusing world”. These defenses help us respond to this world. They get us through the shock and disorientation. But we can’t stay in them entirely and forever. If they are the only tools that underpin our resilience, then it is a brittle, rigid resilience. It is a resilience that allows you to survive- but not thrive. They give you the capacity to continue in intolerable conditions. As Brian H. Walker states in his 2020 Ecology & Society editorial: “Evil dictatorships, salinized landscapes, and psychotic states in people can be very resilient. The problem in such cases is to know how to reduce their resilience.”
So yes, compartmentalize, intellectualize, sublimate. Find humor, optimism, hope. Paint that silver lining. Identify strength in your capacities to survive.These things are important. But some ingredients are missing from these processes of resilience- and these are the ones that take you from numb to fully alive again. They allow you to drop your resilience and rediscover a more sustainable and healthy version of it.
Processes of Deep Resilience
Brian H. Walker’s definition of resilience (in an ecological setting) adds nuance to what has already been said. He shares that:
“A resilient system…does not bounce back to look and behave exactly like it did before. Resilient systems are learning systems…trying to protect a system by keeping it in a constant state reduces its resilience…Deliberate transformation of a system is sometimes necessary for it to continue delivering what is fundamentally of value to society”.
So what do these processes of resilience–learning and transformation– look like when it comes to human resilience? With this, we first come back to a seminal figure in narratives of resilience: Dr. Boris Cyrulnik. According to Cyrulnik, two things are required for the kind of resilience I’m discussing here:
a) Affectivity, which is essentially the capacity to feel the feelings, and
b) Narrative, the process by which we give meaning through language to events or experiences in our life.
Both of these things allow you to acknowledge, work through, and integrate what has happened to you, rather than repressing, disavowing, or dissociating from it. You can’t cover a wound in layers of bandage and carry on like nothing happened. It will fester and poison your blood. It will alter your movements unknowingly and cause imbalance and compensation elsewhere. Continuing to ignore it requires you to gradually amputate parts of yourself until there is nothing left. What’s more, you amputate to adjust to the very situation that continues to wound you. As Sara Mourad writes for Rusted Radishes- Beirut Literary and Art Journal, in her beautiful and haunting piece, Aftershock:
“Resilience romanticizes our loss and dispossession. It brands our survival, making it an object of fascination for foreigners and inspiration for locals, advertising it as a valorized mode of attachment. Resilience is a marketing stunt for a political and economic system that runs on crises, that manufactures crises in order to sustain itself. Resilience celebrates survival at the expense of justice. It is the rhetorical and symbolic symptom of the normalization of injustice.”
This is not the resilience we want. It’s time to take back this narrative and recalibrate it so it no longer nourishes what kills us. So we break the cycle of inflicting the wounds that were inflicted on us and on the generations before us. It’s time for a resilience that allows true transformation and transmutation.
So today my invitation to readers is tend, if you haven’t yet. Take your resilience and soften it and nourish deep roots for it. Tend gently, alone, but even more importantly, with others. Find your own sense in the senseless. Allow feelings to form words and sentences. Speak them out loud with family and friends. Help yourself sit with the sting of the feelings by regulating through your breath. Ask yourself what you need to feel safe before you do any of that. Ask for help. Read resources on trauma recovery like this one. Seek professional support from the many organizations and individuals offering it for free right now. Check out those we’ve listed before. Join healing circles, like the one below we’re hosting at The Wellness Project. And stay tuned, we’ll soon be announcing individual sessions and groups with diverse practitioners to support you further. You are probably not okay right now, and that’s okay. We’re not okay either, and we’re here in the ways we can be.
That’s all for now folks. As always, share in the comments if you have thoughts, feelings, resources, or ideas.