In these tumultuous times that seem to require repeated acts of resistance from people who desire a world shaped by justice and compassion, resilience has become a bit of a buzzword. In a recent email exchange, a colleague compared it to words like “tolerate:” a vitally important skill, but not the totality of all that we might hope for. While learning to tolerate difference is essential and even life-saving, we hold a more expansive dream for affirmation and celebration, an entirely altered worldview that sees difference as a gift. In a similar way, resilience seems like the lowest common denominator—a kind of base level capacity to withstand stressors without being crushed by them. But don’t we want more for people than the ability to endure struggle and keep on living? More than resilience, isn’t ours a dream of abundant life and flourishing?
The word resilience comes from the Latin resilire, a compound word that includes re, a prefix meaning back, and salire, meaning to jump or leap. It holds connotations of rebounding or the act of springing back. For much of its life as a word, resilience has been associated with physics, with the capacity of a material to recover its size and shape after compression. An object’s resilience can be measured as its ability to absorb energy (like from a blow or constriction) and release that energy in order to return to its original form. Only more recently has this concept been used to describe an emotional or psychic capacity to endure and/or recover from change or stress, to, as one of my favorite songwriters Brandi Carlile has sung, “learn to let it bend before it breaks.” The complexities that come into view when we consider the etymology and scientific uses of resilience offer hints to a fuller and deeper understanding of why this word continues to capture the imagination of artists, activists, and movement builders. More than withstanding, resilience is leaping back. More than enduring, it is absorbing and releasing energy.
When I think about resilience from my place of relative privilege as a white U.S. citizen, I think about it in relation to my own fragility. Cultivating resilience in my activist work, teaching, worship designing, and scholarship has meant developing the capacity to stay with the realities of racism, colonialism, xenophobia, etc. when my privilege allows me to step away. To keep seeing and hearing and being affected by the ways that death-dealing systems steal life from my kin of color, from immigrants and refugees, from the earth itself. To leap back into conversations when my heart becomes defensive or I want to shut down. Resilience has meant learning how to absorb the energy of completely warranted distrust, anger, and animosity, of pain and grief, to dwell with it, be changed by it, and to release it, though not to return to my original state, but move forward forever impacted. And I know that my limited understanding of resilience is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn and appreciate about resilience from communities and individuals who don’t hold the privileges I do. And I know that my experience of resiliency pales in comparison to that of those who have been forced to cultivate resilience in the face of the daily onslaught of systems of oppression.
I hear echoes in this conversation about resilience of the dialogue womanist theologians, especially Delores Williams, initiated about the idea of survival. While some disparaged the idea of survival as the least of what we could hope for humanity, using black women’s lives as a primary source for theologizing, Williams and others suggested that survival was actually the pinnacle of human life and had much to teach us about God’s desires for humanity. Not only that, the strategies of surviving that black women embody reveal the fullness of redemption in a way that illuminates the redemption reflected in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In a similar way, it seems to me that the resilience embodied in the ordinary living, loving, and celebrating and the extraordinary dreaming, resisting, and justice-making of those who systems and structures conspire to limit and eliminate, reveals a fullness of hope. There is much to understand and discover about abundant life and flourishing from the resilience we bear witness to in ourselves, in others, and in the communities we inhabit and encounter. To leap back is a spiritual practice, it is something we can witness and celebrate and something we can learn to do. As a spiritual practice, leaping back is formational; it shapes us in the pathways of resilience carved for us by our ancestors and by the Holy. Perhaps resilience is the same kind of leaping back we might call resurrection