Resilience is the discipline of infusing the adversities of life with a sense of meaning and purpose. At the heart of resilience is our capacity for creativity, improvisation, recovery, and adaptation. A resilient person works with the physical, mental, and spiritual elements of their misfortune in order to reclaim a sense of balance, equanimity, and integrity in their life. Resilience is the alchemy of creative adaptation to the difficulties, challenges, and disturbances that emerge in the natural course of life. To be a resilient person is to risk the possibility of living a vibrant and fulfilling life.
“People who are resilient draw on strengths in themselves, their relationships, and their communities to help them overcome adversity. Resilient people often find meaning even in times of trouble and gain confidence from overcoming adversity. In this way, resilience can contribute to a deeply satisfying life.“
– PBS: Resilience
The word “resilience” has two basic meanings. The first meaning describes an ability to “bounce back” and return to an original form or state. This implies that resilience is a means to return to a previous state. However, aging can be interpreted as a form of adversity that changes our life at a fundamental level. As we become older, we can find ourselves trying to hold on to a way of life that no longer exists.
Another sense of “resilience” embraces the idea of “recovery.” To recover from adversity is to learn how to creatively adapt to the sometimes harsh reality of our new circumstances. Rather than bouncing back, the energy of resilience helps us to keep moving forward in life. In this sense, resilience is the creative effort to broaden and expand our sense of identity, meaning, and purpose in direct and very practical response to the difficulties that have fallen upon us.
Adversity can cause seismic shifts in the underlying ground of our everyday experience. Under the pressure of adversity, our personal sense of identity becomes fragile and malleable. Our assumptions, expectations, and cherished beliefs that once offered a sense of consistency in life break open and split apart. Our sense of meaning and purpose in life begins to rupture. The smooth, even terrain of habit and routine that provided a sense of comfort and security suddenly becomes disjointed, unfamiliar, and threatening. And in the aftershock of adversity we find ourselves completely surrounded by the startling revelation that life as it used to be has become far too small and unstable for us to inhabit.
Resilient people practice the alchemy of creative adaptation in the face of adversity. The essence of resilience is to move forward and through our difficulties in order to discover what our life must now become. In this sense, resilience gives us permission to let go of beliefs that no longer serve us. There is a deep sense of acceptance of the new reality we now must face. We recognize that there are parts of ourselves that can no longer serve us, and we begin to improvise with our newly discovered uncertainties.
Ecological resilience refers to, “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedback.” Every human life experiences disturbances and threats to their physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. The idea of absorbing a disturbance reveals a willingness to openly accept and courageously stand face to face with a difficulty from which there is no retreat.
A resilient person recognizes that acceptance is the only reasonable course of action in the face of adversity. We “absorb” a disturbance in life by courageously turning toward it even in the midst of our trembling. It may be that we feel as though we are facing a great beast that threatens to tear our life apart. Accepting the fierce reality of a disturbance in our lives is the foundation of resilience.
Acceptance leads us into the difficult and sometimes treacherous quest to “reorganize” our mode of life. The process of our internal reorganization requires us to endure and work with the dynamics of our stress, uncertainty, anxiety, loss, grief, and bereavement. In other words, we intentionally risk ourselves to the process of change and transformation. Life in the external world may appear to proceed as usual, but our internal world of identity, purpose, and meaning are now exiled on an unfamiliar terrain.
Resilience is a core discipline of aging. The experience of becoming older is not without difficulty. No two people experience aging in exactly the same way. Our ability to absorb and adapt to the experience of aging in the second half of life is essential to our success. As we become older, the effects of aging can cause a deep sense of disturbance in our life. As our body ages it naturally draws our attention toward the inevitability of our own impermanence.
Aging is a state of constant motion, change, and transformation that we ultimately have no real control over. In one sense, aging is a wild, untamed, and feral element of our existence. We are all apprentices of aging and inexorably belong to the natural ebb and flow of life on our planet. Our established routines and comfortable patterns offer no sanctuary or protection from the primal call of nature.
In contrast, modern society often portrays aging as an enemy. We are encouraged to “fight aging” or embrace the snake-oil mantras of “anti-aging.” We become addicted to the “cult of youth,” and in doing so ignite the fires of ageism. To place ourselves into direct opposition with the natural and normal forces of life is a form of collective psychosis.
Our attachment to consistency, steadiness, and familiarity of established routine can sometimes become a source of distress. Aging is a source of relentless change, transformation, and motion. In a certain sense, aging can create disturbances in our most cherished routines, goals, assumptions, expectations, and beliefs.
Normal ageing generates internal shocks that we must learn to absorb and recover from. Aging is a form of deep communication with the more mysterious and soulful undercurrents of life. Over time, we begin to realize how small we are in relation to the vast confluence of life that is the essence of our existence.
Inside the nature of all human experience is the requirement to change, adapt, and flourish in response to a unique collection of challenges and difficulties that appear along our path. Aging speaks the language of the soul and connects us to the deeper and more mysterious undercurrents of life.
Resilient aging is a courageous attempt to find our way through the unfamiliar, unexpected, and sometimes difficult terrain of life. To be resilient with respect to aging is to consciously embrace the experience of becoming older with the underlying grace of belonging and gratitude. To “fight” or be opposed to aging is to ignite the fires of our own psychosis.
In a broad and expansive sense, resilience is about accepting and allowing the natural rhythms of life to resonate freely. The heart of resilience is the capacity to identify and accept the aspects of living that remain out of our control and to creatively adapt ourselves to adversities in life that inevitably emerge over time. To practice resilience as a core discipline in life is an apprenticeship in living a life worth living.