One thing I’ve learned about the word “resilience” is that it initially came from the field of metallurgy, describing how certain metals when heated will lose their shape, but when cooled can amazingly recover their original form, resiliently. So we’ve come to define resilience generally as being “able to withstand or recover from difficult conditions,” which accurately makes it a reactive skill, often in response to external dynamics.
I think, for instance of baseball superstar Jackie Robinson, who in the 1940s and 50s showed immense resilience as the first African American to play in the major leagues, patiently enduring near-constant racial harassment from fans and fellow players alike.
We can also honor the high degrees of resilience required and shown in places hit by natural disasters, such as Japan, Haiti, Sumatra or New Orleans, just to name a few. Meanwhile, stresses and repercussions around the current political climate in the United States call for great resilience from many of us.
All of which suggests that resilience can also be an ongoing quality of internal strength and hardiness, producing a supple capacity for prospering amid whatever difficult conditions might emerge. It can be an overarching practice—intentionally building a resilient way of life, both individually and together.
Resilience is not about merely recovering from one trial or another, one after another. Resilience is also a proactive skill and a way of life, both personally and in community.
As resilience has risen as a topic of interest, many global studies have explored how diverse populations have demonstrated various degrees of it. For instance, Community Resilience: A Cross-Cultural Study (from the Wilson International Center and the Fetzer Institute) identifies qualities that appear to be characteristic of more and less resilient communities.
Three experiences are usually part of low resilience settings: people feel displaced, insecure and voiceless. They do not feel like they have a place where they belong; they are anxious about their safety, their future or both; and they are not feeling heard. Displaced, insecure and voiceless, none of us would feel very resilient.
In contrast, people in settings of high resilience, besides not experiencing those three feelings, generally portray a significant overall common characteristic: they stay in touch with the core, defining essence of their community. And when challenges or adversity arise, they believe they can change things for the better. They resiliently manage to find a way back to expressing that defining essence—their purpose for and mission in being a community together.
What I take from these comparisons is confirmation that resilient community is shaped by collective thought—a mutuality of purpose. Without that shared purpose a group of people will feel disjointed, more likely to experience the painful effects of low resilience. In the same way that the best medical care attempts to both repair damage as necessary and suggest good preventative behavior that builds physical resilience and helps avoid more trips to the clinic, so, too, can we look at our life in community.
We may be well aware of the problems that besiege us, and that our efforts to fix what goes wrong or is unfair are important. But we can also build systemic resilience that proactively improves the odds for strong communities that will ride relatively smoothly over whatever bumps are ahead. Mutuality of purpose can be seen in any community’s common sense of identity, expressed by its shared value system and collective spiritual strength.
The eminent historical scholar Howard Zinn is also encouraging:
When you have models of how people can come together, even for a brief period, it suggests that it could happen for a longer period. When you think of it, that’s the way things operate in the scientific world, so why not socially? As soon as the Wright brothers could keep a plane aloft for 27 seconds, everyone knew from that point on that a plane might be kept aloft for hours. It’s the same socially and culturally….
We’ve had countless incidents in history where people have joined together in social movements and created a spirit of camaraderie or a spirit of sharing and togetherness… If true community can stay aloft for 27 seconds, it is only a matter of time before such a community can last for hours.
Resilient communities full of resilient people. I know it can happen.
As much as I strive for sustainability, I yearn for resilience, which shines as a somewhat brighter beacon for me these days. Resilience is a reasonable, personal, inviting path, actively honoring our Unitarian Universalist principle of “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
I see it as a spiritual strength to be cultivated.
Let the beloved community unfold in sustained resilience.