What helps us—as health care providers, as caregivers, as people, as communities— endure the various traumas and sufferings we’re exposed to indirectly and that we experience ourselves?
Resilience is something that is often cited as an answer to this question. Resilience is a term that has been adapted from engineering to describe the ability of a substance, such as a metal, to return to its previous state after being stressed—the substance is able to bounce back, to return to steady state, to normal. The American Psychological Association definition of resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.” Resilience is sometimes referred to as ‘good survival.’
Over the past several decades there has been an explosion of research on resilience, mainly focusing on individual risk and protective factors. The main protective factors are, not surprisingly: 1) the formation of a firm, secure attachment to a parent or caretaker figure within the first few years of life; 2) prosocial behaviors and personality traits, such as empathy, a positive attitude, capacity for forgiveness, and ability to ‘play well with others’; and 3) a sense of personal agency, of being able to act, to do something positive both in the midst and the wake of trauma. The main risk factors are, not surprisingly, the opposite of the protective factors.
Most research on resilience has focused on the individual, is Western-centric, and has increasingly become biologically reductionist, narrowing in on the epigenetics of trauma and resilience, finding individuals and entire communities of people with ‘short alleles’ and DNA methylation—genetic markers of increased vulnerability to the adverse effects of trauma. That these are most often individuals and communities already marginalized by poverty and racism and other socially-constructed vulnerabilities, serves to further label and pathologize people and communities. It marks them as damaged goods. As irredeemably, permanently damaged goods. It typically ignores the mounting research evidence indicating that such epigenetic damage is largely reversible and preventable with appropriate life experiences—with access to appropriate life experiences, including effective therapeutic interventions.
Resilience-building interventions include cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy; therapies focused on building the capacity for empathy and forgiveness; narrative storytelling and other meaning-making therapies; and therapies aimed at increasing social support—social support that includes social touch—the human version of primate grooming. Good touch: a handshake, a peck on the cheek, or a hug in greeting; a hand brushing a shoulder in sympathy; sitting close to a stranger on a bus; washing the feet of people who are homeless, people who are rarely touched in a good way.
This all sounds good, but resilience irritates me. The whole saccharine notion that the human body, the human psyche, and even entire communities can be like heated metal—stressed and stretched but not broken—that they can bounce back, return to steady state, and perhaps be stronger and wiser for the experience? Certainly, I believe that strength-based research and interventions are an important and sizeable improvement over our traditional deficit models so prevalent within health and social services. But resilience has its dark side.
Resilience tends to glorify trauma, and contributes to an addiction to pain and to suffering: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Be the hero of your own life. Cancer saved my life, made me a better person. And Hemingway’s “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” It glosses over the fact that trauma and resilience are not equal opportunity affairs, that some people (women, children, people with various disabilities, non-whites, and gender nonconforming people), and some communities (marginalized by homelessness, poverty, racism, and the effects of colonization) are much more likely to be exposed to traumas in the first place, and they have fewer resources to weather and recover from the traumas. It ignores the larger structural inequities, as well as the stigmatizing narratives we place on certain people, communities, and entire impoverished countries. As physician, anthropologist and global health champion Paul Farmer reminds us, “The capacity to suffer is, clearly, part of being human. But not all suffering is equal, in spite of pernicious and often self-serving identity politics that suggest otherwise.” (p 288)
Trauma never happens in isolation, even if it is a one-time trauma that occurs to one individual, trauma happens within the context of a particular family, community, cultural, social, and time period. An individual trauma ripples outwards as well as inwards. Suffering from trauma is always a social process; recovering from trauma is always a social process. If suffering is a universal yet unequal human experience, being able to tell and listen to illness and trauma narratives matters. But it doesn’t stop there. Physician, anthropologist, and expert on illness narratives Arthur Kleinman admonishes us that it is the moral and emotional cores of these experiences that matter much more, including the cores of social suffering that especially affect marginalized people.
Kleinman also encourages us to ask the question, What helps us endure? “And I mean by endure withstand, live through, put up with, and suffer. I do not mean the currently fashionable and superficially optimistic idea of ‘resilience’ as denoting a return to robust health and happiness. Those who have struggled in the darkness of their own pain or loss, or that of patients or loved ones, know that these experiences, even when left behind, leave traces that may only be remembered viscerally but shape their lives beyond.” (p 119)
Note: This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Soul Stories, a collection of essays on the role of narrative in health and healing.
Paul Farmer. ‘On suffering and structural violence: a view from below.’ In: Violence in War and Peace. Edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. (New York)/ Blackwell Publishing (2004). pp 281-289.
Arthur Kleinman. “The art of medicine: how we endure.” The Lancet. January 11, 2014. Vol 383. pp 119-120.