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Resilience

Human resilience is a flat-out mystery.

I've had a great many occasions lately to tell bits and pieces of my childhood. Online dating-world is awash in reminiscence: where did you grow up? Are you close to your family? Some profiles even stipulate it: I'm looking for a partner who had a happy childhood and loves his/her family. I shake my head at the simultaneous hubris and naivete of that, as if a life were a simple equation, input equaling output: a happy childhood guarantees…what?

I told some of my story again this past weekend in a workshop where families of origin were part of conversation. This many decades down the road from childhood, the whole thing has a slight air of unreality for me, a story about someone else, the plot of a film that once made a deep impression. I seldom volunteer it, but telling my tale lately—being prompted so often to do so—reminds me of the big impact it has on other people. It comes wrapped in a kind of chaos that almost always elicits dropped jaws and surprised exclamations: You're kidding! How did you come from that?

I have absolutely no idea. But of one thing I am certain: experts who do claim to understand it all are talking through their hats.

For many weeks, people have been telling me to see the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film Winter's Bone. This weekend, I did. It's about Ree, a seventeen-year-old girl caring for her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings in the Ozark Mountains. Her father, whose livelihood has been cooking meth, puts up the family home and timberland to secure his bail bond, then disappears. Ree's odyssey in search of her father is driven by the need to protect the little her family possesses, to avoid adding homelessness and even greater impoverishment to the hardships they already endure. It brings her into conflict with violent and secretive members of her extended family and with the law. She suffers greatly, but she is resolute, dogged, dauntless.

My young life differed in every single specific from Ree's, but I identified so strongly I nearly pulled a muscle straining at the screen.

A great many psychologists and social scientists are trying to figure out what explains the capacity to face risks, experience trauma, deal with major challenges, and somehow continue to spring back, to grow in mastery, and to seek possibility. But like most such research, their results fail to meet basic standards of proof, on account of two problems:

  • First, while researchers can show correlations between certain characteristics and certain behaviors, they cannot prove causality. It may well be true, for instance, that children who bounce back after major trauma tend to have a higher degree of social support; but not everyone who has social support turns out to be resilient—not by a longshot.
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  • Second, the nature of this type of research precludes any sort of control group. It would be monstrous to systematically deprive a representative sample of children of family and community ties, for instance, so as to assess the impact on their resilience as adults.

Haven't we all seen it? Two siblings face the same life-challenges in the context of the same family, community, and cultural milieu: Jane spirals into a life of addiction, marginality, and utter chaos; Jean rolls with the punches, going on to enjoy a productive and satisfying adulthood. Why is Jean so much more resilient?

Scientists study brain chemistry, asserting the healthful effects of a proper balance of neuropeptides, or a strong oxytocin system. Others posit that social support and connection are key, as is the ability to find meaning in one's experience, rather than perceiving it as a kind of enemy fire, random yet intensely personal it its impact.

The most circular of these findings attribute resilience to personality factors such as "good problem-solving skills," "the ability to cope with stress," or a "positive self-identity," seeing oneself as a survivor instead of a victim. Maybe so, but where do those things come from?

Of course, it's far better in all ways for children to have support and connection, a positive self-image, help in learning to face and solve problems. But these are what one might call essential social goods, not instrumental ones. Children deserve them just as they deserve safe homes, nourishing and delicious food, humane and creative education, loving arms: because their inherent satisfactions are experienced instantly, not as a form of banking the future, but as a way to illuminate, ennoble, and gladden the present.

The fact is, every time a researcher points to this or that resilience factor, creating even a half-convincing narrative of cause and effect, you or I can turn and point to a remarkable story of resilience unbidden, resilience as grace. It's the uncanny driving force of that—the way resilience leaps into the world, a vigorous weed thrusting through pavement—that carries the most hope. We can't condense it into a checklist or pop it like a pill, but especially because it is a mystery, there is the ever-present possibility that the smallest thing we do may call resilience forth, even under crushing pressure. A song, an image, a gesture, a story, a moment may be the lever that lifts a burden, setting us free.

Last week, I did a workshop on the ethics of arts practice for a talented and dynamic group of (mostly) young musicians who work in and on behalf of Carnegie Hall's community and education programs. As part of the day, we saw a video clip that emerged from a songwriting workshop at a shelter in Morningside Heights. Some of the artists performed "The Last Rose of Autumn," a song written by a lovely and graceful woman named Leila: "[A] sign of hope to hold so dear… A beautiful thing, the last rose of autumn is the first rose of spring."

We spoke of the desire for renewal that emerges even when life's end is near, and the power of art to express that passion. In the evening after the workshop, we learned that Leila had passed away earlier that week. I did not know her, but I saw something in her face that I saw in the face of Ree in Winter's Bone and in my own young face when I gazed into the mirror and imagined a future in which I would be free to live as a I chose.

Its origin is a mystery. I will call it life-force. The gratitude I feel for it knows no bounds.

Ponder the mysteries of your own resilience as you listen to Alice Russell's song "To Know This." To me, she's the most interesting of the British neo-soul musicians, a motley crew whose music fuses as many influences as ribbon candy has colors. This song is about deep knowing, such as knowing that you can face what comes, and spring back, and experience the pleasures of being alive so long as they are granted to you. May it be so for you, dear reader, and for me.