It’s a rainy Monday and I’m at the new Sydney outpost of the School of Life, a global institution founded eight years ago by philosopher Alain de Botton. Around me, well-dressed men and women scribble pre-class notes, conduct hushed conversations around cheese platters or, like me, take giant sips of tea while milling around awkwardly. We’ve traded in the comfort of weeknight Netflix for this warmly lit space, on the first floor of a heritage building on Castlereagh Street, to find out if “resilience” – the ability to emerge stronger and wiser after life serves us a catastrophe – is simply a genetic lottery or a skill that we can learn.
Resilience, a concept that first emerged in the 1970s after a group of psychologists studied the progress of children who thrived in the wake of poverty and violence, has enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years. Since 2009, US army officers have received “resilience training” to turn the trauma of battle into a chance to grow as a soldier. As the world becomes increasingly unstable, the capacity to not only overcome emotional hurdles but turn adversity into opportunity is being hailed as a tool for modern living, much like the willingness to meditate on a regular basis.
As the world becomes increasingly unstable, the capacity to not only overcome emotional hurdles but turn adversity into opportunity is being hailed as a tool for modern living.
But I’ve always suspected that when something is hailed as a tool for modern living, we forget that modern living is an amorphous business that resists a one-size-fits-all approach. Resilience is simultaneously the subject of listicles about leadership, the mantra of foreign aid workers in Ethiopia and the secret to Taylor Swift’s world domination.
Closer to home the word, which is Latin for “to rebound or recoil” has started appearing everywhere from educational curriculums to public policy. An October 2015 article in The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian schools were rolling out resilience classes to address the prediction that depression will be the world’s biggest health concern by 2020. And last year, Adelaide launched a Wellbeing and Resilience Centre to help South Australians prepare for job losses in the automotive industry and avoid the catastrophic thinking that can sometimes be a precursor to mental illness.
Back at The School of Life, our facilitator, who has a kind and intelligent manner that’s impossible not to warm to, tells us that the Stoics, the Ancient Greek thinkers who understood that the world was inherently chaotic, suggest taking a morning inventory of all the things that could go wrong before we start our day. She asks us to write down a problem that was plaguing us and notice if the words we use hint at blame or helplessness (I cringe at my notepad). This fixed mindset, ruled by spiralling thoughts, terror of the unknown and habit of using success to validate yourself, is the enemy of resilient thinking. To be truly resilient, we need to strive for a growth mindset – one which welcomes uncertainty, believes that success is internal and perceives failure as something to learn from. I rewrite my notes and instantly feel better.
Truly resilient people have access to support networks and the capacity to reframe their story of personal struggle.
But as much as I’m an advocate for the power of learning to turn adversity into triumph something unsettles me about the way this narrative of personal progress focuses on individual empowerment rather than the systems that demand a resilient response. In a December 2015 New York Times article, Parul Sehgal brings up the fact that student organisers protesting racism on US college campuses were accused by The Atlantic of being “robbed of resilience and disempowered by mistaken ideological assumptions.”
Sometimes, the call to be more resilient can silence those for whom thriving in the face of setbacks isn’t limited to a Monday night class. Choice has nothing to do with it at all. In July 2016, a British Council report found that if Syrian refugees were to become resilient, the ability to speak English would play a critical role. Our facilitator points out that truly resilient people have access to support networks and the capacity to reframe their story of personal struggle. Yes, we can’t control what life throws at us but shouldn’t we also agitate for a world that doesn’t demand so much?
Near the end of the class, we’re shown a slide of Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, the retired US army surgeon who was held captive by troops during the Gulf War in 1991. In February 2014 Cornum, who has since spent her career championing the necessity of emotional resilience, said “it’s easy to take advantage of a good situation, it’s harder to turn around a bad one.”
As I leave, I think about the situations that I thought would destroy me but actually shaped the person I’ve become. We may not have a roadmap for fighting our private battles but knowing we can use the tools to overcome them together might not be a bad thing after all.
Image courtesy of Flickr/ Pame Figueroa.