Rethinking resilience

It was 1946 when a little girl named Diana was born in the steel mill town of Ashland, Kentucky, which rested on the southern bank of the Ohio River. Her father owned a gas station and her mother made meals for people on the riverboats nearby. She loved her Kentucky home, but Diana knew that making it out of her poor Appalachian town would mean throwing herself into her studies with the hopes of making it into one of the nearby colleges. 

When Diana became pregnant at 17, she was devastated. Her football player boyfriend quickly bailed when he learned the news, leaving her to figure out her next step alone. Uncertain how she would support herself and the child she carried, she quickly married a classmate named Michael. After all she had worked for to complete high school, she ended up missing her graduation ceremony when her daughter was born in June. She named her baby girl Christina.

Diana and her new little family moved out to California for a fresh start. But it was there that her shotgun marriage to Michael fell apart, and she became a single parent to Christina and a second daughter, Ashley. Still determined to make their lives better than the one she’d known so far, Diana enrolled in nursing school, waitressing on the side to pay their overwhelming bills. 

Alone with her daughters, a string of bad relationships behind her, and economically desperate, Diana brought her girls back to Kentucky to a town with one main road and just fifty residents. They couldn’t afford a phone line or a television, and so at night they’d sit out on the back porch and sing to pass the time.

Diana had always loved making music and she was thrilled that her eldest daughter seemed to share her passion. With little to lose, Diana decided that maybe their ticket out of this life wasn’t in California, but instead in Nashville. She packed up some suitcases and moved herself and her girls to Franklin, Tennessee, where she got a nursing job while she looked around for opportunities to sing. It was a patient she was treating at the hospital who set her up with an audition at a big record company down the road. 

When the record company heard her and her daughter, they signed them within hours, adding their names to a roster of superstars represented by the label. By that time, though, the pair had changed their names, preferring to call themselves by ones that better reflected their Appalachian roots, and for Diana, her connection to an important Biblical matriarch. They were now going by Naomi and Wynonna. 

The music of the Judds was the background to much of my young life. Their bluegrass voices played through the boombox I kept plugged into the outside outlet as I rode my bike around the small blacktop patch behind our house. 

I’d learn later that Naomi and Wynonna would spend hours singing with one another even during long stretches of Wynonna’s teen years when they couldn’t seem to speak to each other. At the time, I’d ride in the car with my own mom, seething with my own pre-adolescent rage, and we’d sing together about grandpa and the good old days. When the car would stop, we’d go quiet again. 

After Naomi died last year, I searched Spotify for the best of the Judds and spent weeks revisiting their music. The soulful melodies lit up so many childhood memories for me, and I could almost feel myself back in the body of the young girl I was. When her daugther Ashley shared a couple weeks later that Naomi had died due to suicide, my stomach dropped. 

I’ve been a psychologist long enough to know that the suffering being experienced by another is so rarely obvious, but still I felt my heart clench inside my chest. After 76 years of trudging through the muddiness of life, the pain of going on had become too much for her. 

As I read through articles and tributes to Naomi, a word kept popping up. It was a familiar word, particularly in my line of work, and one that I’d myself lauded on plenty of loved ones and patients who were making their way through the particularly shitty parts of life. 

She had been so resilient, they said, surviving a life that could have taken a lesser woman down. She’d made something enormous of herself, had been the picture of strength and determination. But, I couldn’t help but think, now she was gone. 

While the concept of resilience may be as old as time, the word itself actually only came into our lexicon a couple hundred years ago. And when it did, it was only used in the context of engineering. It came from the Latin word resilere, which meant to recoil or rebound, and a measurement soon developed that assessed how well a material like wood or steel could return to its original shape after pressure, like wind, had been applied. 

Ever in love with metaphor, psychologists started adopting the term in the mid-20th century to talk about children and the qualities that they have to make them seemingly unmoored by difficult events. As the 1970s turned into the 80s and 90s, trauma researchers got excited by the idea that we could learn a lot from people who appeared to be resilient in the face of tragedy and trauma. 

What developed was an idea that there are certain individuals who, as a function of biological temperament or protective factors in their environment, seemed to bounce back from hard things better than others. As this construct took hold, resilience as a concept and a complement started showing up everywhere. We praised people on performance reviews for their resilience through workplace changes. We studied resilience from all angles to figure out how we could make more of it. We implement resilience-building programs in schools. We featured stories of resilience in the popular press to inspire. 

I might even say that we became obsessed with the idea of resilience, so much so that it’s taken on a morality of its own. It is certainly American in its ethos, the idea that one can persevere despite all obstacles, persist at all costs. But in all the excitement about a quality that seems to suggest that we can go through horrible things and still be okay, I think we got a little lost. 

When we call someone resilient, here’s what it usually means: Wow, they’ve been through so much! That would have totally crushed most people. And yet, they bounced back. It didn’t affect them long term. Impressive!

And here’s what else we usually mean, without meaning it: Despite the total shit they’ve endured, they managed to still conform to our cultural expectations of success. They aren’t making us look at their gaping wounds or the scars they carry. Their pain isn’t making me uncomfortable or negatively affecting me. 

Now, I don’t mean to crap all over the entire concept of resilience. If it’s a term that has resonance for someone, there’s utility in that. But I worry about how we celebrate a certain brand of resilience in our culture, one that privileges academic, occupational, and social success over all else. It’s one that essentially says, your strength lies in the fact that you can internalize your wounds enough that they don’t have to be inconvenient to society. 

Because here’s the reality, one that by now in our study of human struggle and trauma I would hope we know deeply, but perhaps we like to ignore: no one gets out unscathed.

The VP of Finance who rose from significant poverty has two Teslas but lies awake every night with panic attacks about losing the security he’s built. 

The academic all-star who grew up with parents keeping her up at night screaming profanities at each other was just accepted to her top three universities but can’t seem to stop crying when she’s by herself. 

The entrepreneur mother of two who built a family and a life so much more stable than what she ever knew is plagued with constant self-doubt and can only seem to drown out the critical voice with wine. 

We call the people who make it out of their circumstances resilient, but so often we do it while ignoring the way those circumstances continue to live in their bodies and minds. Maybe it’s not that we don’t care; we just don’t know. And because we’ve held resilience up so high on its pedestal, we don’t make it feel very safe to show the ways that the pain lives on in us. 

Now, do I believe that things can happen and have little impact on us? Absolutely. The impact of hard events depends on such a multitude of factors. And where the concept of resilience can be helpful is in thinking about which of those factors can soften the blow. For instance, having a safe space to talk about what just happened after a crisis helps us to process that event in a way that doesn’t keep it lodged in our body or us feeling alone with it. Having those resources has been proven to reduce long-term impacts. 

But in the way that we most often talk about resilience these days, as an aspirational trait up there with selflessness or extraversion, I’m inclined to say that it doesn’t actually exist. The idea that we as humans can “bounce back” to our pre-trauma states – to the person we were before or that we would have been without it – feels impossible to me. That doesn’t mean that we are worse for the wear. Post-traumatic growth and change happens all the time, and it’s beautiful. But we are not wood or steel; our material doesn’t rebound. Our hardships change us. 

No one – not even the daughters that loved her so fiercely – can know what was happening in Naomi Judd’s mind and heart at the time of her death. And I personally know nothing of whether Naomi had the opportunity to heal from the heartbreaks of her life. My deep wish for her is that she did. 

What I do know is that when we look at a life and call it a success because it has all the trappings of the American dream, we are too often missing the wounds that lay just beneath the surface. We convince ourselves and each other that so long as we are “making it,” our experiences aren’t impacting us. And in doing so, we deny big parts of who we are and stay stuck in painful patterns. 

When we do heal from the hardships we endure – and we absolutely can and do – we are not so much like the piece of steel that the 19th century scientists studied to see how it could withstand the storms. No, we’re more like the beautiful Japanese Kintsugi bowls, staples binding the shattered parts, made all the more stunning by the way in which they have been reconstructed in their brokenness.

Perhaps none of us are resilient, per se – and maybe that’s even more beautiful.  

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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