What's Tony Thinking

A Contrarian Take On Resilience


Perhaps you too have noticed that the word “resilience” seems everywhere these days? It was the theme for a recent on-line writer’s workshop I attended. It has been the topic for a couple of clergy retreats. Everywhere self-help writers urge “strategies for resilience” upon us, and task parents (who are already overwhelmed) to make their kids more resilient.

The reason is, of course, obvious. The pandemic (not to mention national politics) has been testing us all for quite some time now. Coming up on a year for the pandemic (longer for politics). These days we trade updates with friends and family about if and when we will get our “poke,” a.k.a., the vaccine. But even with the vaccine we hear that the regimen of precautions and restrictions will continue. And who knows what new viral strains lurk?

So time — again — to “bounce back,” even if you’re not sure how much zing is left in the rubber band you call your life. Time again to dig deep, to be creative, to see the world in new ways, etc., so on and so forth.

It’s not just that the pandemic has been exhausting and anxiety-inducing (and, yes, other people in other places, as well as at other times in history, have had it much worse — so shame on you, you whiner). It is that leaning into a virtue like resilience as our main go-to may be “piling on,” to use a football expression. And, speaking of football, how perfect that Tom Brady — “Mr. Resilience” — is the man of the hour?

By “piling on” I mean that we keep asking more of individuals and families, while the social supports and institutions (something I’ve been writing about of late) have often let us down, or outright failed us.

I want to revisit an essay, first published in August, which asked an important question, “Is Resilience Over-rated?” Author Jami Attenberg starts with some charming, self-effacing humor in which she notes that while many have made use of the pandemic to master new skills, learn foreign languages, read the classics, run a home-school or at least train a rescue dog, she has done nothing, at least none of that.

“It’s been more than four months of lockdown and I have taught myself nothing new — no recipes, no outdoorsmanship capabilities, no repair techniques. I often reflect on the skills that our frontline and essential workers have, which not only include how to save lives, but also the ability to have pleasant and professional exchanges with other people over an extended period of time. When I compare myself to them, I think: just suck me into the hell fires already, I give up.

“I am engaged in the status quo. I have not risen above the circumstances. I am not resilient. Although I am not even sure if I know what that word means anymore.”

Attenberg pushes deeper, starting with conversations in her relatively new hometown of New Orleans where the people have so often been described as “resilient” that they are sick of the compliment.

“Here in New Orleans, where I am a relative newcomer, my friends who are longtime residents and who survived Hurricane Katrina greet the word ‘resilience’ with a fiery disdain. This is a city where people have been called resilient for years, and so many I talk to just seem exhausted by it.

“’It puts the onus on the person to fix the things that should be a civic priority,’ said Anne Gisleson, a friend and a native New Orleanian.”

“Or, as my friend Alison Fensterstock, who lives down the road, texted me: ” ‘You’re so resilient’ is just code for ‘You’re on your own, sorry.’ ”

Another way to put this is that we’ve embraced private solutions for public problems. Are you worried about water quality in your city’s system? Well, you better buy cases of bottled water at Costco. Are schools not teaching your kid to read? Find a tutor.

To make “private solutions to public problems” work you generally need to have money, time, and smarts. Connections help too. Not everyone has all that going for them. Or what resources they did have are now tapped out by the pandemic. Add to this, decades of underfunding public institutions in the name of fiscal responsibility. Part of the reason for the U.S.’s less than stellar response to the pandemic is that the public health system in the U.S. has long been neglected, and like many other crucial government services, starved of resources.

Once more from Attenberg:

“Is the idea of resilience a scam? A con to get you to do more so others have to do less? My friend Sara Nović joked in a message that ‘resilience is made up by our capitalist overlords,’ and she added a ‘lol’ but I didn’t even laugh — and I don’t think I was meant to.

“Even as psychologists have spent the past few decades studying and promoting “resilience theory” — which posits that you can build protective factors, particularly in children, as a way of offsetting risk factors that can hinder personal development — are we missing the bigger point? What about a focus on the risk factors themselves, the outcomes of systemic racism, poverty, and inadequate educational and social supports. Are we fixing the right problems when we are teaching the importance of resilience?”

To be clear, resilience is a virtue, a good thing, something to admire and to teach our children and grand-children. Lots of people have been and continue to be incredibly brave and resilient during this pandemic. Chances are you are one of them. High five!

But any virtue that is pushed too far and too single-mindedly, can flip over and become a vice. It can become a way of “piling on” individuals, especially the most vulnerable, instead of building up our shared life and restoring institutions too long neglected. Restorative work is not only financial — sending money — though that is part of it. Using it well matters.

The Biden COVID Relief plan is described as “going big,” and as such has elicited protests. But it could be that “going big” is only (warning: another sports metaphor coming) playing catch up ball.




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