cartoon by lynda barry
In my bio I say:
I believe the key to resilience in the coming decades will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for.
My recent article The End of Strategy has attracted some interesting discussion about resilience among members of a private Facebook group established by Seb Paquet, focused on preparing for civilization’s collapse. Several people suggested that “resilience” (in the sense of “bouncing back to the way things were before”) is precisely what we don’t need — and that what is needed is capacity for adaptation. I tend to agree — when I speak about resilience I mean precisely this adaptive ability to move to a place where we ‘fit’ in with new and emerging realities (that is what Darwin was referring to when he spoke about survival of the “fittest”).
My statement above comes from having spent most of my work life adapting to changing realities in the work world, and also from a lifetime of observing people fitting into harsh and rapidly-changing circumstances — life in traumatizing nuclear families, in brutal and alienating schools, in demoralizing, fiercely competitive, numbing workplaces, in ‘voluntary’ social groups of all kinds, and facing situations such as chronic and/or debilitating physical or mental illness, the death or loss of a loved one, the loss of job, home, savings or other security, profound business, family or personal failures, or being the victim of personal violence or eviction from one’s home or homeland. The trauma need not even be personal — witnessing profound or repeated suffering of other people or animals, or massive destruction of any kind can be just as shattering.
These circumstances and changes are largely unpredictable, and most of us have faced our share of them. The result is often trauma, and a resultant persistent or chronic sense of anxiety, fear, insecurity, resistance to change, anger, grief and/or feeling of never having enough to be happy or content. It is possible that the propensity of most people to become more change resistant as they age may be due to this. I have said often on this blog that to some extent the whole world has become a hospital and has been for a long time — we are all damaged, suffering, traumatized, trying endlessly to heal ourselves and those we love. TS Eliot in the poem East Coker:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
Our natural inclination is to try to “get back” to health — back to what we imagine (usually nostalgically) was a time when everything was better, healthier, surer, stronger, more certain and safe and reliable. But that imagined place of unmarred beauty, absolute safety, complete certainty and predictability was always illusory. Many of us have realized this and are now seeking to “move forward” to a place of healing and eventual health, and whole movements and cultures have emerged to support that pursuit.
In the meantime, most of us continue to be buffeted by the shocks and stresses of modern civilization and the aftershocks, caused by the actions of those especially damaged, on the rest of us.
Resilience, then, entails finding spaces and processes where/how we can heal from damage already inflicted on us, while at the same time finding ways to respond to the ongoing shocks and stresses we face. Where can we find those healing spaces and processes, and the capacities and processes to best cope with recurring and newly-emerging shocks?
While most devotees of the idea of resilience seem focused on systematic ways to plan for, anticipate, prepare for, prevent or mitigate crises and unwanted changes, a few, like Sam Rose of the Future Forward Institute / Forward Foundation, have realized that such command-and-control approaches generally don’t work, and are trying more natural approaches, focused on helping people develop peer-to-peer resilience capacities and processes.
In the discussion with Sam I said:
I have argued before that we can only achieve behaviour change one-on-one, and only then through providing information or stories that improve understanding, reveal unconsidered possibilities, or suggest different ways of perceiving the situation.
I think we need to focus our energies on enabling and facilitating people’s learning, especially learning of new and much-needed capacities, rather than trying to change behaviour by changing processes. That’s why I still use the word ‘resilience’ as one of the core capacities we need to learn, because the future is going to be so strange, and so different from anything we might try to predict now, and so different even from community to community, that we can’t plan for it. No one is in control. Or in other words we should focus on helping people to ‘be’ better, rather than suggesting how they can ‘do’ better.
Such approaches are constrained, however, to local communities with a lot of face-to-face contact, and inevitably don’t scale well. A lot of change advocates are impatient with this kind of action — it’s slow, requires a lot of investment of time, and considerable (rare) mentoring, facilitation and other skills and knowledge of how complex systems work.
Sam wrote back:
I think the greatest hole in our society is effective support for activities that people might do on their own (outside of the context of large corporations, institutions, or government). There are already lots and lots of resources out there to teach someone how to do practically anything they might want to do. However, the number of people who can just strike out and learn/do on their own is small. Most of us need a “sensei” to help us get up to speed on the literacies we need.
So, part of me is thinking that an immediate need would be to help people become independent and networked educators of other people. This is a real need that I am hearing from more and more people. I actually make part of my living doing this already [supporting local food and energy initiatives, and open source and proprietary technology initiatives]…I think this can happen on or off the internet (although an internet connected computer is a powerful tool). In addition to that, I am thinking about a way to guide people towards goals such as replacing their power sources, employing open source technology as individuals and groups towards food production and water procurement, and learning where and when to establish and co-maintain commons.
I’m a bit skeptical about how much of this can be done online, but with the right technology that enables learning-by-doing and learning-by-watching online networks, I could be persuaded. Sam agrees that there needs to be a balance between face-to-face and high-quality online resources. These face-to-face plus online “resilience networks” could, I think, be established now by putting the framework and infrastructure in place and modelling them small-scale, and waiting until events start to catalyze large-scale demand for them. Sam is convinced there is a good living to be made right now using such networks to help meet pent-up demand for better food, renewable energy, open-source software and other peer production activities.
What capacities might such networks help us acquire, and what processes might they pilot? Here is my subjective list of the Top 12 Resilience Capacities and Processes (mostly from the list in my earlier 65 Essential Resilience Abilities post, diagrammed above):
- Agility/Flexibility/Openness/”Looseness”/Self-Adaptation (letting things pass through you instead of steeling yourself against them, and changing your behaviours instead of trying to change others or the world)
- Improvisation/Intuition (capacity to do something helpful/useful in the moment)
- Awareness/Understanding (of what is and what is really happening)
- Demonstration/Giving Attention (showing others, not telling them, and listening — the essence of good mentoring)
- Facilitation/Holding the Space
- Acceptance/Appreciation/Letting Go
- Invitation/Eliciting/Challenging/Partner-finding (i.e. engaging others)
- Collaboration/Connecting/Building Upon/Translation/Consensus/Synthesis (i.e. working well with others)
- “Workaround-ability” (the capacity, so critical in large and unresponsive organizations, to find ways to achieve important objectives despite violating approved rules, processes, procedures or instructions)
How can “resilience networks” — groups of people in community (real or virtual) dedicated to helping fellow members improve their resilience to shocks, and heal from past shocks — help us to acquire these capacities? I think the answer is through a combination of three things:
- Connecting those wanting to acquire the abilities above, with those who (as assessed by peers) have those abilities and are competent at helping others acquire them
- Enabling practice: through organization, invitation, facilitation, demonstration and mentoring, providing the place, time and means for those seeking to improve their abilities to practice safely and learn effectively, and in turn help others practice and learn
- Providing resources and support: drawing on people with access to good learning resources, and people who are good empathizers and healers who can help people recover from serious and traumatizing shocks, in the past and as they happen
I continue to believe that these networks need to be primarily local, and I seriously doubt they will scale well. We may use similar models and technologies in different communities, but the need, the content, the capacities and the practice spaces will have to be local and customized to individual and community needs.
I’m intrigued about the possibility of creating some models and templates of resilience networks, and will be reading more about what Sam and others in the Peer-to-Peer movement are doing. We all have a lot to heal, and a lot to learn, and we will have to start now and work hard to be ready for the crises ahead — not with plans and prognostications but with personal and community resilience, drawing on the twin strengths of good ‘health’ (in the larger sense of the word) and deep change-abilities.