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Defining Resilience

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

More often than not, the word ‘resilience’ evokes images of strength during a time of adversity.

I asked several friends to tell me what the word meant to them without consulting the dictionary roughly 80 percent defined it as toughness, perseverance, grit, strength or similar concepts.

More than one described a picture of a person standing fast in the middle of a storm, in defiance of the howling winds trying to blow everything down.

Yes, resilience is all that, too.

But what a lot of people are missing in their own understanding of the word is that, in its most faithful definition — not an archaic definition, mind you, because current dictionaries still define it thus (go check) — resilience is the ability to recover from a difficult situation.

This is what I had to remind myself at the beginning of this lockdown which we found ourselves in two and a half months ago, as the COVID-19 crisis exploded into a full blown global pandemic.

Everybody was worried for the future, and I was no exception. In particular, I was worried about the company I worked for. And I was worried about our jobs. Would we have to take pay cuts? Would some of us need to be laid off? Will the company survive?

And then there was the personal aspect. While my wife and I never got to the point of being at each other’s throat while cooped up at home, I missed hanging out with my friends and colleagues. I missed eating out, walking around the shopping mall and driving around the city.

The situation in the early part of the quarantine was, quite frankly, depressing. My knee-jerk reaction was to eat too much, sleep too much, and exercise too little. The 20 pounds that were quickly added to my frame accentuated my general feeling of anxiety.

What helped change that downward trajectory? Surprisingly, it was a very small, mundane thing: I told myself to trim my fingernails. With that done, I moved to trimming my toenails the next day… then organizing the pictures on my phone… then replacing a busted lightbulb in the living room… and sorting the junk in my car’s trunk. One task a day, then two tasks, then three, four and five.

It worked. Two weeks later, I had a daily self- and home-improvement routine, and I was feeling better. The external environment is still less-than-ideal, of course. The there’s still no vaccine for the virus. The economy is still bad. Our jobs are still under threat. And I still won’t be able to hang out with my friends in the foreseeable future. But my mind is off the anxiety, and is now preoccupied with daily bite-sized tasks and resolving small issues one at a time.

One day at a time.

That is a form of resilience. It’s not the heroic, epic kind which inspire movie screenplays. But it’s the effective, practical kind that can move people out of a slump.

Remember: “Resilience” comes from the Latin word resiliens, meaning “to rebound”. If you want to break it down further into the root words, “re” means “back” and “salire” means “to jump”. Literally, to be resilient means the be able to jump back.

One doesn’t usually jump back from a good place. Ideally, one jumps from a bad situation to a better one. The prerequisite is that we are in a less ideal condition and use that as base from which our coiled leg muscles explode to spring us forward.

Yes, resilience means being strong. But more than that, it also means experiencing a condition of weakness or moving in the wrong direction… and then rebounding toward where we want to be. Where we should be.

When NASA sends a spacecraft to the moon, it first sends it in the “opposite” direction, to slingshot around Earth so that it would gain enough speed to break free of the planet’s gravitational pull. A space probe headed for Jupiter would first have to go 151 million kilometers toward the Sun, and slingshot around it to cover the 774 million kilometers back to the giant gas planet. The farther in the “wrong” way it first goes, the farther in the ideal direction it can travel. That’s resilience.

Dax Lucas is an award winning investigative journalist based in Manila.
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