“Resilience” has become the word of the moment. Suddenly we’re all resilient—or trying desperately to be.
In announcing that Jill Abramson, the recently ousted executive editor of The New York Times, still plans to deliver a commencement address on May 19, Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch said: “I cannot think of a better message for the Class of 2014 than that of resilience.”
Even animals get congratulated for their resilience. The gray wolf, The Washington Post tells us, avoided extinction “thanks to conservation efforts and the resilience of the gray wolves themselves.”
Welcome to the new cult of resilience.
Bookstore shelves groan with titles like "Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back;" "Resilience: Mastering the Science of Life’s Greatest Challenges"; and "The Complete Guide To Resilience." The U.S. Army is conducting a Ready and Resilient Campaign. Stanford, which this year made history by rejecting fully 95% of all applicants, has a Resilience Project waiting for the 5% resilient enough to have gotten in.
Separately, the Rockefeller Foundation has its own project on Resilience. The University of Nebraska Press publishes a peer-reviewed journal on resilience, called Resilience. The city of San Francisco just appointed the country’s first Chief Resilience Officer.
The point is not to fault the advice offered and work done in the name of resilience. Most of it—possibly all—is necessary and worthwhile. These are programs to prevent rape, suicide, dropping out of college, incompetent city governance, environmental degradation, and death or injury from natural disasters such as earthquakes. Anyone would applaud such efforts and wish them great success .
The trouble lies with the ubiquity of the word "resilience" itself. Why must so much human endeavor be measured against the ideal of endurance or adaptability?
In its most literal meaning, “resilience” is a scientific term that describes any given substance’s ability to get bent or stretched without breaking and then to resume its former shape. We could all stand to be more resilient. But isn’t that where ambition begins rather than ends?
When did resilience become life’s holy grail? You won’t find resilience among the ancients’ four cardinal virtues -- wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Perhaps its primacy is a sign of our economically depressed times—five years into the recovery median income still stands 4 percentage points lower than it did when the Great Recession formally ended in 2009. Or perhaps it reflects the country’s cynicism about whether its democratic institutions can, or even should, make life better for all. If you lack opportunities to be wise, just, or courageous, why not consider resilient?
Resilience is necessary, to be sure. People, cities, and ecosystems lacking resilience ought to be taught or provided it.
But consider one of history’s great demonstrations of resilience: the London Blitz during World War II. Night after night, Hitler’s Luftwaffe pounded the city with bombs, raining death and destruction. But when Winston Churchill addressed the nation, did he preach resilience? No, he preached victory—“We will fight them on the beaches,” etc. Eventually it came to pass.
Resilience is hardly the theme of Jill Abramson’s life. You don’t get to be the first female executive editor of The New York Times just by being resilient (although it probably helps). You get there by demonstrating grit, creativity, high ideals, and an oversized capacity to perform very hard work. (Full disclosure: Abramson is a friend and onetime boss of mine.)
There isn’t much point in a commencement speaker telling the graduating class to go out there and endure life’s blows with good cheer. A preferable message—one Wake Forest students might hear from Abramson—is: Go out there and change the world! Yes, life often stinks. Think about ways you can make it stink less, and savor the parts that are great. If we all brooded less about resilience, perhaps we’d work harder to make resilience a less necessary virtue in everyday life.