Three Opposites of Resilience

Resilience, part 1


Have you ever been bent out of shape?

Bent out of shape. Such an evocative phrase! It means “upset or angry." “Don't get all bent out of shape—I'm sure she didn't mean to insult you.” Or, “You should apologize to Phil before he gets bent out of shape.”

There’s also a more literal meaning. You might say, “Ever since the car accident, my passenger-side door has been bent out of shape.” In this case, “bent out of shape” is “misshapen or misaligned.” Which fits. When you get upset, you become misshapen or misaligned. Your shape – your form – the form of your life – the lovely shape that your life has, takes, and fills in relation to the world becomes misshapen when you get upset. It doesn’t align.

That happens. When things are bent out of shape, they don’t roll smoothly. When you’re bent out of shape, you don’t roll smoothly. So if you are bent out of shape, then what you need is to shape up, get into shape, snap back into shape.

Resilience is about being able to return to form after being bent, compressed, or stretched. It's about recovering readily from illness, depression, adversity, setbacks. Resilient people bounce back – like a pillow whose foam returns over and over to the same shape.

Pillows and Rocks

Actually, about that pillow analogy. The poet Jane Hirshfield calls that "simple resistance." The pillow resists being changed. One kind of resistance is like a stone that just won’t budge. The resistance of the pillow is more passive aggressive. It happily gives under pressure but snaps right back to exactly the same shape as soon as the pressure is lifted.

Resilience is about adapting to new reality. This means that the shape you snap back into isn’t exactly the same shape that you were bent out of. It’s more like, as Hirshfield calls it, “sinuous tenacity.” Her short poem is titled “Optimism.”
“More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
Returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
Tenacity of a tree; finding the light newly blocked on one side,
It turns in another. A blind intelligence, true,
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
Mitochondria, figs – all this resinous, unretractable earth.”
There’s toughness – but not the toughness of stone that isn’t pliable, doesn’t reshape itself to adapt. There’s also softness, but not the softness of a pillow that molds itself around every pressure only to go back to its unchanged shape as soon as the pressure is removed. It’s “sinuous tenacity.”

What both the stone and the foam pillow have in common is they don’t change. The pillow appears to change, but it accepts no enduring lesson. There are, then, at least three opposites of resilience.

One opposite is firm rigidity. Like the stone, unbending. It never gets bent out of shape because it never bends at all.

Another opposite might be called purposelessness, not standing for anything. As the saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” There’s no inner purpose, no sense of “this is what my life means, and my calling is to live out who I am, to offer a particular and unique set of gifts to the world, understanding that every gift necessarily comes with shadows.” That pillow readily accommodates every pressure, but only for as long as the pressure is being directly applied.

So on the one hand there’s no learning from the pressure – no integrating it. And on the other hand there’s no selectivity about which pressures to accommodate and which ones to push back against. So: the first opposite of resilience is rigidity. The second opposite is purposelessness, not standing for anything.

The third opposite is fragility: totally cracking under pressure -- just breaking into thousand tiny pieces. I’m not talking about the cases where extensive psychiatric treatment and hospitalization is needed – that’s a story unto itself. The fragility I’m talking about is able to maintain functionality, can compartmentalize to a certain extent the part of the self that in a thousand pieces, and often does eventually find a way to put the pieces back together in a new shape, but takes a long time doing it. Or the compartment of the broken pieces gradually gets smaller – or maybe better hidden.

It is to a particular kind of fragility that we will turn in the next post.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Resilience"
See also
Part 2: White Fragility
Part 3: Qualities of the Resilient

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