noun 1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. 2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. We are often inspired by stories of human beings displaying acts of great resiliency. Bob Marley played a free concert two days after being shot by a would be assassin, bullet still in his arm: “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” Mother Teresa helped the sick and dying in Calcutta for decades and even asked for more trouble: “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” This quality of resilience is swiftly gaining popularity amongst educational and psychological institutions, perhaps in response to decades of helicopter parenting and the resulting impairment of this quality. In 1899 the Newsies of New York unionized, went on strike, stood up to bullying and violence from Joseph Pulitzer and the mafia, and demonstrated; shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge and eventually winning their demands. The average age of a Newsie at the time was 9 years old.
Other role models for amazing resilience include all undomesticated animals, and indigenous peoples. Zebras, for example, live extremely stressful lives, sometimes having to share the watering hole with 550 pound lions that would like very much to eat them. There might be a life or death chase or struggle that occurs on a daily basis, after which the zebra, if it survives, will shake off the stress and return to eating grass as if nothing ever happened. But, Zebras don’t get ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, or any other stress related illness. In fact, stress related illness is unknown amongst wild animals or wild humans; stress related illness is a disease of culture. What is up with that? Receiving a nasty email or someone unliking us on Facebook is enough to send some of us to the bar, drug dealer, or psychiatrist. This question inspired one of my main teachers, Dr. Peter Levine, to study and develop “Somatic Experiencing”, a method to resolve the effects of trauma and chronic stress in the human nervous system.
In short, the theory shared amongst many stress researchers and neuroscientists (Peter Levine, Dan Siegal, Robert Sapolsky, Bessel Van Der Kolk, and Stephen Porges for example) is that wild animals don’t get chronic stress because they don’t have a neocortex. A moment of acute stress, whether it be from a stalking tiger or shady human in a dark alley, releases a cocktail of stress hormones, namely adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which last about 3 minutes or less, unless another stressor triggers another flood. The stress response was designed to last for shorts amounts of time. A large body of evidence suggests that stress related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions. When a zebra is running from a lion, it’s stressed out, but when it’s not, it’s chill. Human beings can continue to have an existential crisis years after a stressful event (what does it all mean?), because we have a big human brain that can literally think up stressful events that aren’t actually happening, triggering the same physiology as if it were. "My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened" wrote Mark Twain.
Another main reason wild animals and indigenous folks are so resilient is that they don’t futz with the natural arch of the stress response. The theory is that when the wild animal (humans being an animal) are scared, they run. When they’re angry, they fight. When neither of those is gonna work, they freeze and play dead. When the danger has passed, they shake it off and move on with their lives. Much of modern culture trains us to be stoic, to keep a stiff upper lip, to internalize our struggle and not appear “weak” or “emotional”. Woody Allen joked that “Oh, I don’t get angry. I just grow a tumor.” Resilience is often confused with stoicism, when in fact stoicism is a recipe for being stuck in a never ending cycle of a stress feedback loop: the stress cycle is interrupted by our efforting, resistance, or over-thinking, and gets stuck like a broken record.
The chart below represents the natural cycle of the stress response, and we can use our big human brains to futz with this cycle, never allowing it to fully complete. Like a sneeze or an orgasm that never quite gets up to threshold, we can inhibit anger, fear, tears, sadness, or grief from fully expressing by holding our breath, keeping ourselves busy, or constant media exposure. In Somatic Experiencing sessions, I’ve seen time and again the healing nature of giving oneself over to this natural biological cycle of the stress response; when people let go enough, the cycles of anger, fear, helplessness, shaking, tears, and emotion naturally arise, hit a threshold of intensity, much like a sneeze or orgasm, and pass, leaving the client feeling immense relief and empowerment.
From a Buddhist and Existential Psychology perspective, resiliency is so central to well-being, because security and safety are very relative concepts. Helen Keller, another example of amazing resilience, said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Difficulty, pain, heart break, old age, sickness, and death are so woven into the fabric of life that trying to avoid them is like trying to run from your own shadow. Buddhist meditation practice, then, is not to run from pain, but to make one’s peace with pain. In the words of the Buddha, “Pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute, they come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a great tree in the center of them all.” This approach is typically not the knee jerk response of your average domesticated human being, especially a human being that grew up ingesting advertisements from various business entities that make their living on selling security, insurance, and safety; the implicit message often being: “Feeling scared? Go buy something. Feeling lonely? Go buy something. Feeling empty? Go buy something. Feeling in danger? Go buy something. Feeling unworthy? Go buy something. In pain? Go buy something.” Bishop Tutu, the South African social activist and holy man, spoke to the American tendency to run from discomfort (the stress response) and called America “the land of the unmourned dead.”
Resiliency, then, is not about stoic, militaristic, stiff-upper-lipped machismo. Nor is it about helicopter parenting, trigger warnings, or bubble wrapping the world. It is about the willingness to step into the fire of the stress response; learning to trust that your 600 million year old nervous system knows how to recover from acute stress if you just let it. It is about the willingness to say “yes” to discomfort and pain and suffering. It is about letting life effect and move you deeply, while riding the ups and downs of life. Like the Tibetan saying goes, “If there are sharp rocks on the ground, you can cover the world in leather. Or, you can put on a pair of shoes.” The shoes are resilience, they are made from trust, honesty, wisdom, compassion, and humility.
“You can turn away from the suffering of the world. That is your right, and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very turning away is the one suffering you can avoid.”
The Little Duck
It’s a duck
Riding on the waves
A hundred feet beyond the surf.
It can rest while the Atlantic heaves
Because it rests in the Atlantic.
Probably it doesn’t know
How large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But what does it do, I ask you?
It sits down in it.
It rests in the immediate
As though it were infinity
And the little duck has it.
-Donald C. Babcock