Resilience is a scam.
What I mean by that is the way we toss the concept of resilience around like we’re reaching for a small blanket to smother a raging forest fire feels suspect to me.
You’re so resilient.
You’re so, so strong.
I’ve heard these refrains countless times throughout my life as if resilience were a trait, a quirk, a preference. I have an alto voice, own a part-Bengal cat, and like Studio Ghibli films. I am also apparently strong and resilient due to the abuse, trauma and loss I’ve endured. I oscillate between wearing these emblems of “strong” and “resilient” like badges with pride and shuddering in an effort to shake them off.
Yes, life is absurdly hard. And yes, we possess the resilience to weather it. But why do we treat resilience as a mark of one’s character, a measure of someone’s innate aptitude to face disaster, and, by extension, an assessment of their worth?
Resilience implies its shadow that we are less comfortable confronting—trauma. To be resilient means one has encountered life-threatening circumstances and survived. A car crash, intimate partner violence, systemic racism, death threats, poverty, ongoing childhood abuse, a pandemic.
Physiologically, survival means a nervous system made a snap decision about whether to fight, flee or freeze that helped in the preservation of the body it is wired through. Survival also means the threat didn’t succeed in its goal of killing us for whatever reason. Laying bare survival makes me skeptical resilience is all that personal or something that’s even completely within our control. I think resilience as a laudable personal attribute is a myth we tell to convince ourselves that us clawless, thin-skinned mammals have more control than we do.
At our best, I think we focus on resilience in order to honour the fortitude and skills it took to survive trauma and to, importantly, remind us we are more than the devastation we’ve lived through. I want to celebrate the brilliance and resources of survivors without minimizing our experiences. The issue with treating resilience like an admirable character trait suggests that those who didn’t survive were somehow lacking when faced with circumstances they really should’ve never had to bear.
I worry we often hold onto the term “resilience” as a way to avert our gaze and not grapple with the omnipresence of trauma—how it’s woven into daily life and how pervasive suffering, oppression, and violence are in our society. I worry that when we focus on resilience we veer towards toxic positivity and repress the uncomfortable and tangible effects of trauma.
Don’t tell me about what almost killed you and how it impacts you today: let me tell you that you had the strength to overcome it and now trauma is tamed and resides solely in the past.
Treating resilience as a positive, personal trait mandates that individuals must survive ordeals or else they are flawed. If you emerge from trauma, you are a hero. If you don’t, you are a tragedy. Either way, these two disparate narratives are dehumanizing and serve to gloss over the nuance and messiness of survival as if it were simply a hill to climb. If someone fails to climb that hill, they must’ve not had the gumption. But what happens with the topography is a chain of mountains?
Our framework for resilience casts the individual as a solitary character—a lone David defeats Goliath with underdog savvy or Ophelia succumbs to a watery destiny ordained by the genre of Shakespearian tragedy.
What if we could bear witness to each other’s stories and acknowledge the complex variables that aided in our survival and the parts of ourselves we lost? What if we afforded those who didn’t survive the dignity of a full and expansive narrative no matter how untidy, no matter its implications for how we treat each other. I don’t want trauma porn and I don’t want a feel-good narrative. I want to know who you are, how you live and learn about those you love who didn’t make it.
What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us kills us in time.
Even further, when we label individuals as resilient heroes and tragic figures we efface context and community—how survival is actually incredibly communal and interdependent. My fate is bound with yours and yours in mine. It’s a terrifying obligation. This accountability asks us to reflect on how we show up for each other and how we fail to. And more overwhelmingly why?
Resilience is more three-dimensional than we realize. It’s depth surpasses its casual status as an adjective for a commendable trait. Resilience is a complex indicator of how we care for or don’t care for each other in foundational moments. What I mean is resilience is less individualistic than we perceive it to be. Resilience is the product of support, community, resources, infrastructure, privilege. In other words: resilience, just like trauma, is a social conundrum and not just a singular phenomenon. This understanding of resilience as born from social, cultural, communal forces is hard to digest because it’s a reminder that we are responsible for one another.
According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs), individuals who experience or witness traumatic events before the age of 18 are more likely to deal with negative effects on their health and well-being, including cancer, heart disease, chronic illness, mental illness, addiction, among others. They are also more likely to incur further trauma in their adult lives due to this early exposure to adversity. Trauma begets trauma.
This research also found that what helps children survive and thrive despite these traumatic events—what helps them cultivate resilience—are protective factors. These protective factors are safe, stable relationships that mitigate the detrimental consequences of early trauma. Teachers, coaches, neighbours, grandparents, siblings who offer children safety and care and thus a reprieve from the adversity they are facing at home are, in fact, nurturing resilience. Similarly, when a child feels a sense of belonging to a group—friends, extracurriculars, other families—that welcomes them, resilience develops. These mitigating measures encompass big and minute gestures—a parent who offers their kid’s friend a safe place to land when they get kicked out, a warm and encouraging teacher who tells students they matter, a neighbour who lets the kids next door come over for dinner several times a week. (Thank you, Mrs. Johnson!)
The ACE study illuminates that resilience is fostered through community. And so the onus of survival and resilience shouldn’t rest on an individual’s—on a child’s—shoulders but on communal systems. Who did and didn’t show up for the kids in their communities? The ACE study is by no means comprehensive—it neglects to include many traumatic scenarios, including domestic violence perpetrated by women and racialized violence. But it’s a start. And we can use the study to conceptualize resilience as a protective measure instated by a community, not a trait someone is burdened with having to possess or to strive for in isolation.
In a neo-liberal capitalistic society that pits us against each other, severs meaningful connection, and frames oppression as a thing of the past or a rare event, it’s easier to situate resilience—much like pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success—as the result an individual choosing to buck up instead of recognizing it as a complex and communal dynamic.
I both pine for and reject the distinction of “being resilient” like a Year Book superlative. I want proof I am special in my survival, but suffering is so very common. I’ve learned being thought of as brave will never soothe me or make up for who and what I’ve lost.
How, then, do we extend care and cultivate safety—both interpersonally and structurally—in our communities? How do we practice cultivating resilience collectively?
Acknowledgement is a start. Instead of telling people they are resilient and strong, we must carve out space for complex trauma and defy the facile narratives we’ve inherited that demand we make traumatic experiences palatable.
We need to reject the laurels this world that doesn’t care if we live or die tries to grant us when we have the luck to survive it.
We need to come to terms with the fact we are intimately beholden to each other.
Adèle Barclay‘s essays and poems have appeared in many North American journals and anthologies, including Vallum, The Heavy Feather Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Walrus, glitterMOB, The Pinch, PRISM, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Lit POP Award for Poetry and The Walrus’ 2016 Readers’ Choice Award for Poetry and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut poetry collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, (Nightwood, 2016) won the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her second collection of poetry, Renaissance Normcore (Nightwood, 2019) was nominated for the 2020 Pat Lowther Award for Poetry and placed 3rd for the Fred Cogswell Award. She was Arc Magazine‘s 2018-19 Poet in Residence, Canadian Women in Literary Arts 2016 Critic in Residence, and the University of the Fraser Valley’s 2020 Writer in Residence. She is an editor at Rahila’s Ghost Press and teaches literature and writing at Capilano University.