Resilience can mean many different things.
Here is what I do not think it means: “the ability to endure waves of trauma without succumbing to the weight of complex tragedy; remaining productive in high-stress, high-stakes situations despite compounding pressures accumulated over time without opportunity for recovery.”
I sometimes get the impression that military leaders invest “resilience” with this definition. No one can come right out and say that, but I have often felt the presence of this concept of the “unbreakable individual” within the contexts of my conversations. I have never experienced a “resilience” class without feeling this “superman” in the room: a call to unbreakability. When faced with the hypothesis that the military’s problem centers upon the inability of the present culture to display the resilience of our forefathers, the military crafts a series of classes in an attempt to make up for a perceived deficit. The military certainly has a reputation for “toughening people.” Still, there are a couple of problems with this approach.
First, can you create “unbreakable” people in classroom? Can you take a group of people raised on political correctness and Western egotism and toughen them up with videos and PowerPoint slides? Even if unbreakability were possible, it could not be achieved this way.
Second, unbreakability should NOT be the aim. To be unbreakable is to be non-human. The very last thing we need, as a nation, is an Army of unbreakable machine-people, nonhumans engaged in the nonhuman endeavor called war.
What, then, do we do with “breakability?” If we should not erradicate it, how do we respond to it?
We can take note that resilience is not unbreakability, but rather the manner of returning from “broken” to “whole.” Resilience describes the ability to heal after being wounded. Resilience is best imaged not as unbreakable granite, but as scarred flesh: a place where skin or bone have healed after wounding.
A resilient person is not one who cannot be broken, but one who can heal after being broken. A resilient person is not the one who can carry the weight of suffering on their shoulders and not buckle beneath the weight, but the person who has been crushed by trauma, pain, suffering, and sorrow and who surrenders to the healing process in the aftermath of that crushing.
What does it take to heal? A strong personal constitution? A personally owned character trait called “resilience?” I think not. Resilience has always and will always be a “team” experience. Resilience has a powerful and indispensable social component. A person is only as resilient as the social network that comes to his/her aid in the midst of the struggle, whatever that struggle may be. No one can be resilient on his/her own. As well, resilience takes time. Healing takes time, and resilience represents a path of healing and recovery. Re-shaping a broken person takes time. There are things from which people–normal, healthy, well-adjusted people–cannot “bounce back” quickly. Stretched to the outer limits and beyond for extended periods of time, most people cannot simply “snap back” into shape. They must be reshaped, submitting to a healing process that involves the help of others. The willingness to submit to that process has much to do with being resilient.
And there have to be both people and process in place to which the broken, crushed, stretched person can go for refuge. We often lack these basic resources of resilience and then wonder why the people around us seem to lack resilience.
Since 2001, we have stretched a group of people to the break point and then demanded that they “be resilient,” but we have not done a stellar job of, first, understanding resilience and, second, setting the stage for it. Resilience comes from all those things that ancient societies provided for their warriors that modern societies feel too sophisticated to practice. Resilience is not an individual resource, nor an individual problem, only. Resilience comes from surrounding a broken person with healing resources and not expecting them to be at their best when they are shattered, but rather bringing those resources to them in a way that they can easily access them.
Can we really say we have done that for our Warriors here in America? When you try to build a resilient force, but do not allow people to access the resources that make for resilience, it demonstrates great ignorance; ignorance of the fact that resilience is only as strong as the support of the team, the family, the unit, etc. encircling the Warrior. The shame that inhabits the topic of resilience–and the depression and rage that this shaming fosters–emerges from a shallow, narrow, thin definition of resilience. A richer definition should contribute to a more authentic approach to the broken person.
The broken, shattered, encumbered human being represents “resilience-in-potential.” When we do our part to bring healing and wholeness to the crushed people among us, we–together; Warriors and civilians–create resilience. The strongest among us are not the unbroken, but those who have been broken and healed.