In the past I have not been fond of the word resilience. For me it conjured up connotations of bracing against, bearing down, facing off, toughing out, putting up with.
When it comes to working with difficulty, “toughing it out” was the coping mechanism role-modelled to me in my childhood and teenage years. But it’s actually not something that has worked very well in my own experience of working with pain, difficulty and mental health.
It was only in my 20’s and 30’s that I came to understand “resilience” to mean the ability to bounce back. However, something about that still didn’t quite ring true to me. I still felt that there was something important in the process of working with difficulty that was not accurately captured.
Then in November 2019 I finally came across an explanation of resilience in the New Zealand Herald that captured more of its essence to me. The author pointed out that the word resilience stems from the word “resile”, meaning “to draw back from”. This meaning “recognises that we are experiencing something that we do not want. ‘We draw back from it, we resile’. Try to bounce without first drawing back. You can’t. To recoil, this gathering in, is vital.”
To me this is about taking stock, accepting the truth of where you are – acknowledging the pain, the loss, the desperation, the shock, the fear, the despair, the anger – fully acknowledging, and being with the full catastrophe taking place in your outer and inner life.
Without doing this skillfully, how can we move forward with any sense of true understanding and transformational personal growth that can come from the raw honesty of facing the moment exactly as it is?
This has been true in my own experience. After a significant, tragic event in my teen years, I chose the “avoid and soldier on” approach. To be fair, when big things happen in our lives, sometimes the best coping strategy for a period of time can be to not let the pain of the whole acknowledged truth flood into us. This is actually a cleverly designed short term survival technique. We can’t be falling to pieces if ourselves or our family are in immediate danger.
However, it comes to a point when we must turn towards, and bear witness to, the truth of what has happened and work with great care through our emotional landscape.
This for me was truly transformational. Being able to be with the deepest and darkest grief and hurt, with care and attention, has been my greatest teacher.
Right now, we are all finding our way forward in this forever changed world, and there will be pain and loss, and fear and grief. There will come a time that we owe it to ourselves to resile, to draw back, to rest, and to take stock of how we feel. Only then, after honouring the complex landscape of who we are and what we have lived through, can we begin to look toward the second part of what it means to be resilient – moving forward.
We move forward then with the knowledge and wisdom that comes with bearing witness to the truth, and with a deeper understanding of the role of impermanence.
When we can do this for ourselves, so too can we be there for others with the same depth of understanding, because we have done the work and we know the terrain.
This kind of deep work doesn’t happen overnight, or after a single workshop, or a few conversations. This kind of work takes patience, time, and reflection. It sometimes takes the willingness to share the raw and tender parts of your experience with others you trust.
What do you need right now? How can you start to acknowledge fully all that you have experienced over the past few weeks? How can you take stock, resile, and then accept?
Only then can we learn, grow, and move forward with the kind of unshakable determination and compassion that comes from being with our full experience with openness, curiosity and care.