Essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter
“We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—
A Moment—We Uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—”
Those are the first two stanzas of a poem from Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets and the only woman poet I knew when I was growing up. It is a meditation on adapting to the dark periods of life and gradually re-finding our sight and direction.
I begin with this idea of adaptability because it is a far more hopeful understanding of resilience than the way I originally understood the concept prior to the beginning of this project. When we say a person or place is resilient, we usually describe how they coped with something bad: loss, failure, destruction, upheaval, trauma. All the consequences of personal tragedies, war, displacement, natural disasters—the many faces of the dark side of human existence.
Resilience, in this context, is often synonymous with endurance, meaning the capacity to withstand blows that we imagine would leave us prone forever, to get back up and keep going. Or perhaps, in the best case, to “bounce back” to the level or state we were in before.
But in my conversations with the various contributors to this project, I have come to understand resilience in a different and more affirmative way: As the capacity to grow and change in the face of adverse circumstance.
I first encountered this definition in an unexpected place: A 2019 report published by Walmart and the McKinsey Global Institute called America at Work. The researchers categorized every single county in the United States as one of eight different economic types (rural hubs, urban, resource or recreation-based, etc) and assessed them in terms of how well prepared they are for the coming automation of many current jobs. Each county was measured in terms of different categories of “resiliency,” defined as the “capacity to change.”
These are reflections on the what of resilience: What does it mean? Is it a matter of hunkering down and enduring? Of perseverance? Maria Popova equates resilience with “grit,” the character trait identified by psychologist Angela Duckworth as far more critical to success than talent. According to Duckworth, “Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance.” But that is a quality that requires stamina and a determination not to change—at least not to change your mind or your goal – which is quite different from the ability to “roll with the punches,” a metaphor that itself includes movement and potential new directions.
Equally important is the how of resilience. How do people find the power to resist and endure and the courage to change and adapt?
I urge you to click and read your way through the offerings in this magazine and make your own list. For my part, I found a number of recurring themes in the interviews I conducted.
First is the importance of a larger purpose, of feeling committed to a mission or a set of goals that transcend the identity or destiny of any one person. Vincent Stanley, the Director of Philosophy at Patagonia (a title that tells us something right away about how Patagonia defines its mission), told me that “aspiration and purpose are large and abundant” while “time and money are scarce.” Bumps and reverses dissolve and disappear in the abundance of a larger purpose.
Cecilia Muñoz said much the same thing about her lifetime of working for immigrant rights and on critically important public issues during her stint as Director of the Domestic Policy Council for President Obama. She talked about the drive and resilience that the goal of creating a better life for your children gives individual immigrants, but also about how she and her colleagues weathered policy reverses and legislative losses—sometimes undoing work they had done for years—by reminding themselves of the larger cause. Again, a sense of something bigger, a way to see our own misfortunes, no matter how devastating, in a context that can provide shape and meaning to a larger collective experience. Resilience built on a foundation of faith.
Equally important are connections to others. Family, friends, community—over and over again our authors and interviewees emphasize the need to tether ourselves to other humans. As Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, said, The “commitment to we makes I stronger.”
Darren also emphasized the power of connection as an ongoing flow of belief and confidence. He described the many government programs that helped him to grow and learn – from Headstart as a pre-kindergartener to Pell grants in college—as a continuing testament to his country cheering him on. Today, he worries that too many children do not feel that “America is cheering them on,” investing in their futures and helping them to get back up when they stumble and fall.
A final quality that undergirds resilience is curiosity, the engine of continual learning. Curiosity poses questions and seeks answers. It is an attitude of open-mindedness that makes it much easier to embrace the new and knit it together with what is left of the old. And perhaps at the most basic level, curiosity is a life force, a continued engagement with the world that can light a spark in even the darkest night.
Let me conclude not with the what or how, but rather the now of resilience. Building resilience to the storms, floods, fires, droughts and epidemics that accompany a warming climate is both necessary and constructive. As former Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin explains in her book The Resilience Dividend, “If we build resilience as I know it can be built … we can not only survive whatever crises come our way and emerge from them stronger; we have the chance of realizing the higher benefit: the resilience dividend. We will have the capacity to create and take advantage of new personal, social, and economic: endeavors we might never have imagined possible and achievements that seemed out of reach.”
May it be so.
May we prepare together to face the personal, social, economic, political and natural crises that are coming. May we come to understand resilience as a quality or attribute that can be practiced and built, and as an inevitable dimension of the human experience. That understanding, that building, cannot come a moment too soon.