Define "Resilience"

We've had the first two days of teachers-only school; it's very strange to have FOUR days before students come on Thursday. But also kind of nice, because we're all there at the same time. Normally, people come in on their own timetables to work in classrooms, so it's a crapshoot who you're going to see, and then we have one day before kids for RAH RAH GET PUMPED FOR A NEW SCHOOL YEAR YEAH! 

Part of these additional days is training and a district initiative to recognize and offer strategies for the collective trauma everyone's experienced, teachers and kids and parents alike. There's been some presentations focused on our students and families, but there's a program my district is embracing called "Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators." It's based on a book by Elena Aguilar, and it is supposed to help us not burn out. 

A friend of mine was a little put off that now we are supposed to get trained in how to deal with all of our new roles and vicarious trauma and the difficulty of 21st century pandemic teaching in a world of inequity, rather than programs to FIX THE ROOT PROBLEM. Touche. But then, part of the presentation introducing Onward explained that part of the strategies it offers is to look at what you can control, which is your reaction and habits to all the difficult pieces. 

Interesting. Tell me more. 

The definition of resilience that was presented first was this: 

A way of being that allows us to bounce back quickly from adversity.

Hmmm. I immediately drew a box around quickly and wrote a tiny "ew" next to it in my notebook. The problem I have with "quickly" is that it's so subjective. It reminded me of how, if you've experienced a loss (of a person, of a dream, of a life  you thought you'd have), society wants you to just get over it. MOVE ON. 

But when I talked to Bryce about it, he agreed with quickly, at least from the perspective of not getting stuck. That moving forward from adversity can't take forever, or else you're not really bouncing back. But what counts as quickly can be different in the situation -- maybe for one it's a month, maybe for another it's years. 

The other piece I struggled with was the phrase bounce back. I feel like that also has a get over it undertone, because it assumes that you can a) bounce, which is a sort of jolly little verb, and b) get back to where you were before. In my experience, grief, trauma, and adversity change you -- you simply cannot be the same person you were before. You can't just bounce back up and be like, "Gosh that was terrible, but I'm all good now! Just the same as I was before!" I prefer the idea of bending, of returning to a kind of normal but knowing that there's some scar tissue there. I don't think this is negative, because scars remind you of the trauma but also how you've overcome it, and maybe even what you've learned. I have a big scar on my left knee from surgery to repair a dislocation with grinding damage (ew) that I sustained in high school while jumping for joy over the sight of beautiful spring pansies. When I see it, I know that I can survive the pain and weakness that came with recovery, but I also unfortunately am less exuberant in my jumps for joy. 

Later in the day there was another presentation about Trauma-Informed Care Post-Pandemic. I very much appreciated that the presenter admitted that unfortunately we are not POST pandemic, that we are very much still in it. But what I liked about this presentation was that there was a different piece of resilience defined: 

Resilience is a process that unfolds over time. 

Oooooh, thumbs up on that one. I wrote it in my notebook, upside down and wonky since it was dark in the auditorium. First, the acknowledgement that it is a process. That it's not something cut and dry that you either have or don't. A process can be developed. And, the unfolding over time: it isn't a linear thing that is the same for every person and every situation.

Then I went to the Onward website, curious what that had to say about resilience: 

 With resilience, we not only rebound from challenges, but are stronger, kinder, and even more alive because of them. Resilience is about THRIVING, not just surviving. It's about learning from suffering so that we experience more joy, calm, and tranquility and more meaningful connections with others. Resilience allows us to experience the full spectrum of emotions and to move more quickly through uncomfortable emotions.

Winner winner chicken dinner! I love these thoughts on resilience, mainly because they echo so much of what we say about surviving and thriving after resolving without parenting, or going through infertility. It's not like you have to be "oh man, I'm so grateful for this shitty experience," but it's nice to be able to say, "I've learned from this and it has changed me, but I feel stronger for it, and have new connections that maybe I wouldn't have had otherwise." It is powerful to know that you have survived something difficult, that you have bent but not broken under the trauma. Maybe you bent nearly in half, but it's great to know that you can survive and thrive in spite of it.

So interesting that there are so many different takes on resilience. How do you define resilience for yourself? 


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  1. Great question, how to define resilience. I don’t know that I’ve ever put the definition into words for myself. I know it when I feel it, or its absence, but not exactly how I’d explain it. I think I agree with Bryce that resilience means not getting stuck. I suppose I would also say that it means learning from life, no matter how unpleasant. While there is a mix of perceived good and bad, in any situation, in the long run the good has more power….that’s been pretty consistently my experience, at least. Sometimes the good that comes out of situations is not what you would expect or predict, either, but it operates in the world in its own way.

    I think it is also important to note that resilience is not something you do by yourself. The people around you are (or aren’t) part of your resilience. Nobody is strong enough to do withstand everything alone, that is not a realistic expectation. So resilience is a way of interacting with the world, as much as anything else.

    1. I love this: "Nobody is strong enough to do withstand everything alone, that is not a realistic expectation. So resilience is a way of interacting with the world, as much as anything else." Yes, impossible to do alone. And definitely the learning from life, too... that even if it sucks there's something to learn from pretty much everything.

  2. Also there’s nothing like putting on a great song on speakers or headphones and blasting it out. There are a few songs that always make me stand up a little straighter with my shoulders back: “Think” (Aretha Franklin) “You Got To Run” (Buffy St Marie/Tanya Tagaq) “One True Love” (Matthew and Jill Barber) and of course “The Mary Ellen Carter” (Stan Rogers) ;-)

  3. Oooh, I love this Jess! At least, the last part. I shared with you the "ew" reaction to the "quickly" and "bounce back" terms used, implying that you get back to normal, and that you can be subject to judgement if your idea of "quick" isn't what anyone else's idea of that might be. I think though that you are a great example of resilience, of surviving and thriving. And also, that when I watched your journey, I was impressed with how ... excuse the words ... "quickly" you "bounced back!" lol

    I wrote this six years ago. It's how I define resilience now, and it fits with :

    "My first reaction was that I didn't realise I was developing resilience, as ... I felt alone, lost, and weak - anything but resilient. I ... was flying blind. But as I look back, I realise that some of the things that came naturally to me were examples of resilience. Other things I had to learn, over time and through trial and error. Ultimately, I think the most important lesson is that resilience doesn't mean not experiencing pain, avoiding our emotions or situations, or not being able to feel what we feel. Instead, I believe that it means working through them and looking to a positive future."

    1. Oooh, love this: "I think the most important lesson is that resilience doesn't mean not experiencing pain, avoiding our emotions or situations, or not being able to feel what we feel. Instead, I believe that it means working through them and looking to a positive future." Love the working through while feeling the feels. I dislike the whole "quickly" thing and the idea that feeling sad means you haven't shown resilience. Ha! Oh wow, and thanks for the thoughts on my own resilience journey. I think maybe I did a lot at once when I completely shut down, and I'd been working through a lot before we made the decision. My therapist at the time said, "Well, you're living proof that you can't do it until you're ready, but when you're ready, holy shit you're ready." I have my moments for sure, but it helped to have to take a little medical leave to sort through everything! :)

  4. Yes yes yes to everything you said. From the tiny Ew near the quickly box to the full spectrum of emotions.

    What a timely book. I know many who may need to explore Onward.

    1. Supposedly I have a copy coming to me! They are going to do a book study Professional Learning, and I am very excited. Sounds like a superduperuseful PL to me!