Reflections on Resilience

Dr. W. Craig Gilliam JustPeace Staff CollectiveTo place the term in a life journey, resiliency suggests that no matter the difficulty of the terrains faced by the traveler, they stay in touch with a core defining essence of being and purpose, and display a tenacity to find a way back as a way forward that artistically stays true to their very being.

~~John Paul Lederach

The man who has many answers is often found in the theaters of information where he offers, graciously, his deep findings. While the man who has only questions to comfort himself, makes music

~~Mary Oliver

As I was working with a small congregation, a parishioner commented, “We might have our challenges, but we are resilient.” Looking across conference lines regardless of the jurisdiction, resilience is at the soul level of individuals, congregations and other organizations. Resilience seems to be a deep quality common to faith communities and systems in general.  It is a common strength and a primary instinct.  Could resiliency be strength on which we can build to help communities find their way into deeper relationships and more intentional ministry? We know that if we want a system to move deeper and forward, the place to begin is with their strengths, gifts and graces, their passions. Is resiliency one of those strengths that we overlook or on which we do not place enough emphasis? Could it be tapped into more intentionally and constructively?  What is resiliency? Resilience is considered by many to be a critical characteristic of effective leadership – but what exactly are we referring to when we use that word?  The American Heritage Dictionary defines resilience as marked by the ability to recover readily, as from misfortune.  Its etymology is derived from the Latin resilientem (normative resiliens) present participle of resilire to rebound, recoil (re—back = salire to jump, leap).   Psychological resilience is seen as the positive capacity of an individual to cope with stress and adversity – but the word cope doesn’t do it for me.  The idea that resilience is just about coping seems to sell it short.  In physics, resilience is defined as the property of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and then, upon uploading to have this energy recovered.  To bounce back or recoil, not in spite of the energy received but because of it. In our Biblical narrative, we have example after example of resiliency; we see how strengths, resources and skills not only enable people to cope with hardships or ruin, but also through their spirits and belief in God, find a way to adapt positively to hardship and become better as a result, to bounce back.  An example is the story of Joseph moving from favored son to outcast and through time and awareness to a position of respected power and reconciliation.  Think of Job sitting on an ash heap, in ruins, yet he finds guidance from a whirlwind and discovers a way through the hardships and even to a better place; we see Israel in bondage by Pharaoh, and finds a way out from under his strong arm and into the wilderness and eventually to a better place. Jesus himself, betrayed by his nearest friends, torn to pieces, feeling forsaken even by God, is crucified, and after three days or so, finds his way through death to the resurrection, transformed.  The disciples, experience apocalypse now, and after waiting the Spirit comes and new life emerges.  Example after example is offered in the biblical narrative as well as in our own lives and the lives of our congregations—people and communities bouncing back when it looks like all is over. All these definitions and examples of resilience suggest that it involves, not only coping and surviving, but also an ability to learn from, to adapt and to be energized through and by the challenges and experiences we face. I guess that there is more than one way to be resilient.  I can simply suck it up, take the knocks and keep stepping up – seeing resilience as something involving resistance. Another way is to see what is before me, accept it and turn the experience into something more useful asking about meaning and possibilities. Often our minds are so set on where we want to be and not where we are.  Maybe that’s where the difference lies.  To be able to utilize the energy life (or God in life) offers us, we need to be more fully present in the moment — not caught in the future or past — but be where we are.  The Jewish theologian Martin Buber comments, “What is essential is lived in the present, objects in the past.” Another word that could be used to describe this kind of resilience is responsiveness.   John O’Donohue comments, “The way we look at something has a huge influence on what becomes visible for us.”  The heart of what we see is shaped and colored by our souls.  I wonder how much energy I would have – how much more I could do – if I looked for and was more responsive to what was being offered or invited?  What if instead of asking what is wrong with this situation or labeling the other(s), I ask, “Where are the possibilities?  What is trying to emerge? What is God trying to do and how do we make space for it to happen?”  This perspective taps into what is life-giving and grace-filled, the strengths that calm anxiety and energize creativity. To be a resilient congregation, community or person means to be able to turn whatever we experience into something meaningful and useful.  It means being present with what is happening, to absorb, to reflect and grow through and from our experience, even the negative experiences that feel as if they can destroy or take the best in us away, and to harvest and digest the food into ourselves and the community’s soul or DNA for the better. Sometimes, when working with conflicted or anxious congregations, I say, my role is not to take the pain away, but to invite the people not to waste the pain.  If they learn and grow from the pain, it is not wasted; pain is a great teacher.  Maybe this is another way of saying, resilient people and communities are learning bodies with a deep capacity to be present, to stay calm and responsive, to adapt, invent, respond, and to find energy in the challenges they/we face. Resilient communities, in the words of Margaret Wheatley have, “learned to trust themselves to find their own solutions and take control of their own futures.  They develop greater capacities and become smarter over time as they learn what works and how to work together.  They become confident that they can deal with whatever problem confronts them next.  In the face of challenges, they respond, adapt, invent and find new life.  That’s what makes them . . . resilient.” I like the word resilience and am exploring what it does and does not offer, its light and shadow sides.  Our language should be evolving, for if it is not adapting, broadening and deepening, if we are still using the same language and metaphors we did ten years ago or are trying to fit everything back into that old wine skin, it suggests that our reality might be stuck.  I believe we as human beings, created in the image of God, are always on the verge, always on the borderland of something more, and “this something more” becomes conscious and impacts us and our systems through the currency of conversation.  Honest conversation about things that really matter to people and communities is the currency for change. Agency refers to our radical choice to respond or react, which is part of resilience—our choice at the soul level to face challenges, accept experiences, even negative ones, to respond, learn, adapt and invent.  I believe while we might not see God in the experience, when we get to the other side or bounce back, in time, we recognize God was there all along walking with us.  I agree that one of the greatest tragedies as  T.S. Elliot reminds us is to have the experience and miss the meaning. I also believe that there are some experiences that are so deep and painful that we will never know or understand the full meaning, but in time, by putting one foot in front of the other, we can find a way to a new narrative and meaning.  Or at least that is a choice before us.  To use Mary Oliver’s image, the new narrative might be inviting us to be the person or community who has only questions to comfort him/herself. From such a stance in life, people and communities can learn to make music. Resiliency is a word that might be the next stone on which to step for our journey into the present and future.  Where and how do you see resiliency in your life and the life of the congregation?

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation.



Words on Resiliency from John Paul Lederach

We could say the defining quality of resiliency is the capacity to stay in touch with one’s core values and purpose.  When serving from this deep place of purpose and values, the community yields greater outcomes. “. . .in the words of the poet, William Butler Yeats, he refers to this as ‘looking for the face I had before the world was made’. In this sense, resiliency, . . . requires finding a way back to one’s path, back to humanity, the sense of personhood and community that creates authenticity and purpose. Health, as viewed from the standpoint of resiliency, suggests the character of personhood and quality of community that faces, moves through, and bounces back from difficulty, damage or destructive experience, with a spirit that pursues and stays in touch with purposeful life and meaningful relationships.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email