A common reference today in many circles of education, industry, and politics is the use (and overuse) of the word “resilience.” On its own, this is not a bad word. It is powerful, invigorating, and inspiring. How it is used is where it becomes problematic. According to Richards (2020):
Resilience is a dynamic process of positive adaptation in the face of adversity. When individuals face major stressors due to events such as natural disasters, trauma, public health crises, and now, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), resilience is tested on an individual, organizational, and societal level. But resilience is not stagnant. Appropriate guidance, access to resources, and early intervention can strengthen resilience and lead to improved mental health outcomes.
This definition is important as we realize how much more is involved in resiliency than the immediate reaction of overcoming a hurdle. Resilience is not another word for “grit” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” but sadly, is being used as a synonym without the consideration of the most important parts of the definition, as stated above. Guidance, access to resources, and early intervention. For those reading between the lines… equity.
Often, when those in power are faced with concepts of adversity, resiliency is trotted out, as an easily obtainable existence, if one just tried hard enough. Failure? That is at the hands of those that seek success.
But resilience is a political concept with political origins, designed to promote compliance to the status quo.
The concept of resilience was introduced in the 1970’s to provide context around the systematic response to disasters by Neil Adger. This became politicized immediately to cultivate national resilience in the face of global strife and terrorism. Davis (2016) notes that resilience has also come to be associated with disadvantaged individuals who overcome great obstacles or circumstances. It is the latter we see in educational and political circles. Additionally, the outcomes of disadvantaged youth are solely placed under the responsibility of those who are disadvantaged.
In the worst circumstances, resilience is used to inspire by appealing to society’s desire to see an underdog win, a victim survive, and a disadvantaged person overcome adversity. We read the stories, Like the posts, and maybe even share with our friends. “What an inspiration!” Our hands placed over our hearts, we commend their strengths and feel better as humans for joining in their celebration. All of this is done without taking a hard look at the circumstances that created the hardship. Did the underdog not fit into societal norms, making them less popular and thus, less likely to succeed? Were there structural supports and legal ramifications to prevent the victim from ever being victimized? Did the disadvantaged person have access to the same level of resources in which a person of privilege has? If there are inequities in the structures of our society, then resilience isn’t the answer to hardships.
So, who does resilience serve, and for what purpose? Those who support resiliency as an answer recognize adversity and feel that resilience is something that should be cultivated to mitigate these effects. By contrast, those who lean away from resiliency as the answer to adversity, find that they focus on the individual instead of the system.
The truth may be that resilience is a flimsy bit of gauze on a gaping wound: an inspiring concept, but one that is poorly equipped to deal with the severity of the issues at hand. Rather, it is resistance that might be more appropriate as a response to untenable situations—not to lament of our inspiration, but a call to action for the future.