Resilience – what does it even mean?

Today I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the blog. Sorry guys, but Mike’s been in Vientiane for the last three days, so you’re it.

You see, I’m doing a consultancy project at the moment focused on resilience as it’s related to managers in humanitarian organizations.

I’m loving this project. It’s given me the perfect excuse to call up some really smart people the world over and ask them all sorts of questions that I haven’t yet decided how I would answer. This morning I talked to a friend and colleague in New Zealand. Last night I was chatting to a new acquaintance in Bali – she and her husband are starting a program to provide retreats for international aid workers (Satori Worldwide). On Friday night it was someone in the Central African Republic.

Among many other things during this last discussion, I learned that skype does have immutable limitations. To whit… it will not work for longer than one minute and sixteen seconds when you are trying to connect Laos and the Central African Republic.

(Thank you to the person I was interviewing for ringing me after the fourth time the line was dropped. I do not even want to think about how much the mobile-mobile call cost her, but she had some awesome insights to share and I’m grateful.)

Of course, at some point (like next week) I’m going to have to start weaving all of these insightful commentaries together, figure out what I think, and write a big thought/research paper. That sound suspiciously like hard work to me. But in the meantime, good times!

You might think that by this stage of the process I would have figured out exactly what I mean when I say the word resilience.

Yeah, well, you’d be wrong.

Apologies for perhaps sounding like a professor here, but the definitional waters around this concept of resilience are incredibly, frustratingly, muddy.

The Latin root of the word resilient is resilire – meaning to spring back, to recoil, to return to the original form after being bent back or stretched.

When it was first grafted into the psychology domain, resilience was used in precisely this manner – to denote someone’s ability to “bounce back” or recover quickly from traumatic events and other types of adversity.

Over time, however, resilience has also come to be used in at least two other ways.

Some researchers argue that resilience goes beyond the ability to bounce back from trauma. Rather, they claim, it is an ability to cope well with fast-paced and continuously changing environments – to cope well with high levels of pressure rather than simply being able to recover quickly when you’ve been knocked for six.

Another group of thinkers and researchers have been even more ambitious in trying to broaden the scope of the term. Steve Wolin, for example, defines resilience as, “the capacity to rise above adversity—sometimes the terrible adversity of outright violence, molestation or war—and forge lasting strengths in the struggle.” This takes the concept well beyond merely bouncing back to the status quo and burdens it with the expectation of positive post-traumatic growth.

What to do with all of this? I can’t very well write a thought paper if I don’t settle on a definition now, can I.

This is still a work in progress, so I reserve the right to change my mind – but the definition I’m kicking around at the moment is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change.

I could go on and on in detail, trust me, but I’d much rather hear from you on this topic at this point.

If you’re still with me: What do you think of when you hear the word resilience? Do you consider yourself resilient? What behaviours, beliefs, or attitudes do you think are related to being resilient in life?

To close, here’s a mini-story I stumbled across recently that made me laugh out loud. I think it’s a gorgeous illustration of one facet of resilience:

Daniel Boone was asked by a reporter if he had ever been lost in the wilderness.

Boone thought for a moment and replied, “No, but I was once bewildered for about three days.”

20 responses to “Resilience – what does it even mean?

  1. I am a international worker in Niger, Africa, the poorest country in the world according to organizations. I too have been reading up on and researching resiliency. Mostly to help me get more 🙂 We work with the poorest of poor in tense situations and I can see the affect it has on people and have read books and papers etc to learn more. Any chance I could get a copy of your “thoughts/paper” when you are done?



    • Hi Chantelle! Your blog, by the way, is beautiful – love the images particularly. Niger sounds like a tough gig – I’ve had several friends who’ve done extended stints there and found it rewarding but very tough going. All the best with your current project, it sounds great. As for the paper, I’ll have to check with my hiring organization as they will own the content. I’m pretty sure they plan to offer this as a free thought paper, in which case I can easily get you a copy. I will update about this issue on the blog. Thanks for asking.

  2. Resilience makes me think of being able to cope well, to handle difficult circumstances with grace. And I think it refers to never letting any challenge or obstacle go unchallenged. It does also bring to mind the “bouncing back” definition.

    Do I have resilience? I don’t know. I hope so. I don’t think I’ve really been tested on that in my life yet. So perhaps I’m not the best one to suggest what it might be. But here’s a quote on optimism that I think can be applied to resilience rather well:

    “Real optimism is aware of problems but recognizes solutions; knows about difficulties but believes they can be overcome; sees the negatives, but accentuates the positives; is exposed to the worst but expects the best; has reason to complain, but chooses to smile.”
    — William Arthur Ward

    • Heidi, love that quote re optimism! I’ve cut and pasted it into my “raw research” file, which is running to about 20 pages already. Really love that quote!! Thanks for sharing. (PS, as per your blog conversation, I think “cool” is one of my favorite words at present. Seriously. I love it. I will ponder others.)

  3. PS to my tweet – ‘but seriously’… Reflecting on my work in public healthcare, my feeling is that there is an ability of some individuals or groups to maintain their focus on achieving their specific goals, in spite of the shifting circumstances they work within. This includes freqent changes to the goals set for them by external bodies or corporate/management structures. These groups are more successful because they almost ignore influences not directly related to their goals. I think of them as resilient.

    • I like your tweet definition. I might use that as my official definition in the report, what do you think? Interesting, your comment, as this quantifies an internal state a little and puts the focus on something slightly more measurable – achieving goals and a singular sort of focus. Gosh, I could write thirty pages on the definition of resilience, but that wouldn’t do anyone except other word-nerds like me any good, so I’m going to resist the temptation. Hope you’re going well with the boys solo while Ben is in Jakarta.

  4. I can get through lots of difficulty and change. BUT I don’t do it well, so I don’t consider myself resilient. I appear resilient but only because change has been forced on me, not because I’ve navigated it well.

    • Hmmm, interesting. I think this is a familiar feeling for those of us who grew up as TCK – that we were the recipient of a lot of changes we didn’t have a whole lot of choice in. I’ll have to think on this some more. I hope you’re well, and that these next five weeks are weeks of peace as you wait!

  5. Hey Lisa,
    I think the first two were on the money – both the ability to bounce back and the ability to adapt to change. My perception of resilience is that the third option you put forward to sort of improve on current levels, I don’t see that as resilience, but as something else that needs resilience before it can happen.

    • That’s a good way of putting it Erica, my sense is that the third one is less resilience and more classically thriving… and that some degree of resilience is a helpful pre-requisite (at the very least) to thriving. But I wonder whether this whole concept of thriving is not a more useful one to focus on. Hmmm… Hope you guys are well. Say hi to Col for me!

  6. I agree with the previous comments – dead on examples of resilience. I’d like to add from my own life/experiences… I see resilience in the people who wake up every morning KNOWING they are going to be working in an environment that almost seems specifically choreographed to be destructive to their faith, personality and happiness. Not only do they endure the oppressive management that makes a measly 9 hour shift positively c-r-a-w-l by, they stand up to the oppressor and try to protect those not in a position of authority. These people continue to this day after day, year after year, fully knowing that, because of the bureaucratic BS and those looking to pad resumes, their actions are most likely futile. However, they continue to plod along, daring to speak up in an effort to make small changes that might possibly, perhaps someday, but probably never make larger and positive differences for the little guy. Instead of just living a mediocre life and having the “do my 8 and skate” mentality, these are the people that very nearly EMBRACE adversity in a bold effort to make their tiny little corner of the world as bearable as their resilience will allow. Perhaps the most important quality in resilient people is that regardless of the mountain standing in their way, they NEVER GIVE UP.

    • Hannah, what a great description of something that I’d see as resilience in it’s pure form – an optimistic sort of perseverance in the face of fairly overwhelming odds! Thanks for sharing. Hope you’re well, and that the work environment you described is not the one you find yourself in at the moment.

  7. Hi Lis – this blog post got my ears pricked. Remember Alison Rich from uni days? She and I are still close and her business Iris Consulting ( specialises in resilience training. She is currently the resilience queen of Australia! Might be something there to check out. J x

    • Yes, I remember Alison well. For sure. Thanks Jane. I’ll definitely wander on over and check it out. Hope you guys are going well up there. Looking forward to seeing you in less than a month!!! Tash and I need to get on you guys about nailing down some time to hang out Friday Dec 3rd or the Sat and Sun.

  8. What happens to people who are broken by violence, illness, inner suffering or their own mind creating a world in which they cannot cope? They can no longer bounce back to their original state anymore. Nor, I might add, would they want to. They want more than that.
    What word would encompass a state of being where people who continue to undergo suffering, learn from it and see personal, mental and spiritual growth? Is Steve Wolin’s definition correct? Does resilience encompase the ability to forge lasting strengths in the struggle? If it doesn’t, than I am in no way resilient. But I really do think I am. I think that in going through hardships which have bent and stretched me, I’ve bounced back – not to my original form, but something that is better, even if on the surface it is intangibly so.
    This reminds me of Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ, “A bruised reed he will not break…” Where does our resilience come from? It is hard enough to just cope with traumatic circumstances much less expereince personal growth through them. That comes from God alone.
    So, I wonder how God would define resilience?

    • I’ve been reading Isaiah lately too. Gosh, not a cheerful start to that book. I can’t imagine he was a tremendously popular fellow. But moving on to resilience… yes. Part of me would like to embrace Wolin’s definition too, because I think it represents the ideal of life, doesn’t it. That whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that hardship breeds strength. I’m continuing to mull over this. All these comments have had me thinking about resilience a lot, and how we define it, and what is actually most useful to talk about in this domain anyway. Should we be stretching to fold in this concept of post-traumatic growth under the resilience umbrella, even if that’s not what the term originally meant? Should we broaden the definition so it’s not quite so trauma focused and frame it as “challenge”? Still thinking.

  9. Hi Lisa,
    What a fruitful dialogue you have started here! And so useful to us at Satori Worldwide. It brings to mind the very seminal debate we had while forming the project: are we just talking about helping people ‘cope’ or are we talking about helping people ‘thrive’– that is, come out on the other side of crises even stronger, almost Nietzsche style. We opted for the latter, because what we learned on our own journey through vicarious trauma and self-care is that the end game is WHOLENESS. Your own integrity serves every person around you just as much as it serves yourself. Being able to transmute the pain you have either experienced or witnessed into something that enhances rather than detracts from your career and life purpose is tool that caregivers of every stripe should be equipped with, but sadly, it is usually not part of the curriculum! Of course, we aim to remedy that. Wish us luck! Well done giving so much thought to this very important concept…. It is definitely worth the time is takes to ruminate.

    • I like the way you put it – the end game is wholeness. Yes, I think it’s more useful to talk about thriving rather than just surviving, too. What I’m still mulling over is how (or whether) to move the concept beyond “bouncing back from highly traumatic events” to the more general life process of dealing well with high levels of challenge and change (given that change in and of itself is a stressor – not always a traumatic stressor, not always bad for us at all, but a stressor). Yes, continuing to think.

  10. Hi. I just found you through Jaime the Very Worst Missionary’s site (I’m just a fellow commenter) and since a stupid migraine has me in bed today instead of at church with my family (stupid migraine) I’m keeping myself from the self-pity by reading my way through your archives.
    It’s been lovely, so, thank you.
    I live in Ohio now, in my home country and close to my family, finally with the husband and children I always wanted, oddly feeling somewhat at home in my home culture and developing a sense of actual place that sort of freaks me out, but before this bizarro stage of my life, I was an expat teacher, living a version of your life teaching in the international schools, being raised as a child in Belgium for a while. Your story has been making me remember, remember, remember, and as I reflect on my life then and read over your stories of the past year, I cannot help but think that your work on resilience had better include something about how the resilient use humor.
    Humor seems to be one trait that sets the truly resilient apart. I’m shocked, now that I’m back here in the comfortable, protected mid-west, how those I meet who seem to be more brittle or fragile also seem to have a less well developed sense of humor. They seldom look for humor in situations, and they don’t seek to understand another’s sense of humor nor translate another person’s personality with humor but rather react to it with offense and irritation. Humor can indeed be caustic, but it can also be warm and self-deprecating and situation saving and full of goodwill. If there is an over-arching theme to how you portray your husband so far in this blog, it is as a person who wields humor with generosity, and if there was ever a greater sign of resiliency, I’m not sure I know what it would look like.
    That’s what I think.
    I’m going back to reading now. Thanks for saving my Sunday.

    • Hi Erica! What a beautiful phrase and a lovely, lovely, compliment you paid Mike, that he wields humor with generosity, and I think it’s also a true observation. He does. Also a very good comment on humor and how it can be life-affirming and help strengthen people. It has been mentioned a lot by my interviewees, but few go into more detail on what it looks like.

      Thanks so much for stopping by to read, and also share a bit of your story. It sounds like you have been on quite your own journey to ground in a sense of place and figure out what home means to you as well. It’s great to hear that you are developing an actual sense of place. Hope your migraine is all better – they are no fun at all!!

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