Veronica Zundel questions whether we should all be running after resilience in every circumstance
There is a website where you can look up your year of birth and find out what new words entered the dictionary that year. You have to scroll down a long way for mine, 1953, but it was a particularly fruitful year: included are words like drip-dry, encryption, fracking, hardback, skateboard and phrases such as the delicious ‘fish stick’, ‘stiletto heel’ (something I have never worn), ‘male pattern baldness’, and ‘random access memory’.
Should resilience be what we are seeking?
Sometimes a single word seems to sum up a whole era: ‘hippy’, for instance, or ‘blackout’. If I were to choose a word that seems to have dominated the last decade or so, it is ‘resilience’. Suddenly the word is on everyone’s lips, both in general society and the Church, whether we’re talking about bereavement, illness or adaptation to climate change.
There appears to be no disagreement that resilience is a good thing. We’d all like to be able to bounce back like a rubber ball, or ping back like a catapult. But I want to ask: is resilience always an appropriate response to trauma or setback? The children of Israel, their land conquered and themselves carried off to Babylon, didn’t seek to be resilient; rather, they lamented, hung their harps on trees and refused to sing, expressed a wish to do to the Babylonians’ babies what the Babylonians had presumably done to theirs (see Psalm 137 for example).
The problem is, the search for resilience can so easily morph into an attempt to deny problems, to sweep them under the carpet of coping where they will lurk and probably come back later to bite us. We are instructed to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), not to lecture them on self-reliance, or even reliance on God. Are we too ready to declare to the chronically depressed, for example, that they need to learn resilience? It sounds perilously close to the imaginary ‘Never minds’ that my mother used to mime stuffing in my pocket before I went to school – a practice I always resented. (Later she attempted to ‘cure’ a breakdown by giving me an anthology of humorous writing; a book I have never opened.)
A time to mourn
Is ‘resilience’ just the secular equivalent of the happy clappy Christian who exhorts us to ‘praise the Lord at all times’ regardless of what has happened or how we are feeling? Yes, the Bible does call us to praise God, but it also has many, many instances, not just Psalm 137, of faithful followers of God crying out in confusion and even despair when things have gone spectacularly wrong. And though Paul in Philippians 4:4 encourages us to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice”, it is only a few verses later that he is referring to his many struggles and saying: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (v12), implying that contentment is a skill to be learned, that there was a time when he didn’t have it, and God loved him no less for it.
The assertion found in Proverbs 25:20 that: “Like vinegar on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” can be taken two ways: vinegar was used to disinfect wounds and help them heal, but on an open wound, it doesn’t half sting. And just a couple of chapters later, 27:14 observes wryly that: “If anyone loudly blesses their neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.”
There is a time to rejoice, and encourage others to rejoice, and a time to keep one’s mouth shut; perhaps there is also a time to teach resilience, and to be resilient, as well as a time to howl out in grief and refuse to be comforted. Jesus did not cry, from the Garden of Gethsemane or the cross: “I’ll get through this, I know I can bounce back” – no, he sweated blood and cried: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Resilience can also become a way of treating symptoms without ever addressing the root cause of suffering. Rich nations, the biggest contributors to climate change and yet the ones who so far feel its effects least, are being asked to give financial support to the most-affected poor nations, so that they can develop resilience to the negative consequences of global warming. Wouldn’t it actually be better to put more money into preventing runaway climate change?
So by all means learn to be resilient, to cope with what can be coped with. But when the ‘uncopeable’ hits us, may we all have someone beside us who sits with us in the ashes and doesn’t chivvy us to do better.