The truth about resilience
Updated: May 29
Since I spoke to British GQ about strategies for coping with lockdown, I’ve been thinking more about the concept of resilience – and how it's often twisted and weaponised against certain groups.
As a society, many of us have a rather narrow view of what it means to be resilient. Think stiff upper lip and taking it on the chin. Taking a beating, getting back up and demanding, ‘Is that all you got?’ That’s why explorers and adventurers are often asked to speak about it. After all, who would know as much about strength in the face of adversity as beardy blokes who face down dangerous situations and make it back to tell the tale?
Quite a lot of people, as it turns out.
In my day job, I work as a barrister. I used to practise criminal and refugee law, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some incredible people whose paths wouldn’t usually cross with mine. I already knew I’d lived a sheltered, privileged life, but this was a huge awakening.
Survivors of rape, torture, human trafficking, domestic violence. Tamils escaping the horrors of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Afghans fleeing persecution by the Taliban. Single mothers being harassed by abusive ex-partners. People with drug addictions and mental health issues.
Put me in charge of a stampeding camel in a sandstorm and I’d back myself. But take away my financial security and support network and hand me any of the problems my clients faced, and I have no doubt I’d struggle profoundly. Why do we hold one form of resilience in such high esteem – so much so that it’s celebrated as the Best of British, imagined as part of the national character – while we’re so slow to praise the other?
I walked 1,600km across the Gobi Desert in summer. It was tough – the most difficult thing I’d ever done. But I had good equipment, training and knowledge and the confidence that comes from an army of cheerleaders back home and in Mongolia, all willing me on to succeed.
I was lauded for my efforts. Yet many of my clients who’d fled war zones or poverty and undertaken far longer, more gruelling journeys under much more dangerous circumstances – and with immeasurably higher stakes – were demonised terribly. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Similarly, the efforts of single mums, people with disabilities and those on benefits can be disregarded or even scoffed at – particularly in times of austerity and often by people who’ve had far less cause to be resilient in their lives.
In other words, a certain kind of resilience – the peak-summiting, flag-planting kind – is too often thrust upon disadvantaged or marginalised groups, touted as a quick fix for their problems – or even used as a stick to beat them with. It conveniently allows us to avoid critical reflection on the root causes of those problems. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So next time you think about resilience, think not only of mountaineers, polar explorers and ocean rowers. Think of carers, cleaners, low-paid workers, homeless people, refugees. Think of those for whom being resilient isn’t part of a one-off event for which they train for months, but a fundamental part of their everyday lives.