My East London informants equated “bottle” with courage, strength under pressure. They suggested a very crude derivation of the expression: the bottle retains whatever bodily fluids might issue in a time of fear. A person with bottle is immune to the anxiety that cripples ordinary individuals. In clinical speak, they are resilient.
Resilience as courage
Developmentalists view resilience as more than courage - as a capacity to flourish despite limited resources. The resilient child seeks out adults who can teach them more and provide better guidance than their parents can. They have social smarts that exceed those of their peers.
Yet, it can be argued that being resilient is very like being courageous, or having “bottle.” After all, it takes courage to approach, or engage supportive adults after the fashion of resilient children. Most children who grow up in disadvantaged situations do not go out of their way to engage potentially helpful teachers, neighbors, or relatives, precisely because they are crippled by fear of rejection and failure.
Indeed an under privileged background can make people tough minded in ways that involve victimizing others for selfish motives. Former boxer and entrepreneur, George Foreman is a textbook example of someone who had plenty of courage but whose early life was on a perilous trajectory (1).
With an over-burdened single mother, the young Foreman dropped out of school and was free to wander Houston's seedy Fifth Ward. Larger, stronger, and more fearless than most of his peers, he earned a reputation for petty crimes, brawling, and generally raising hell (1).
So far, his bottle had gotten him nothing but trouble and his life course was the opposite of what most psychologists think of as resilience. Yet, this is where Foreman's inner strength really came to the fore. While crawling underneath a house covered in mud, he experienced an epiphany, namely, that he had become a criminal.
Recognizing unflattering facts about oneself requires a certain amount of courage but a lot more bottle is required to undergo change. Fortunately, Foreman remembered a public service announcement by football star Jim Brown, whom he idolized, that encouraged teenagers to join the Job Corps where they could get an education.
The next day, he joined up and learned construction skills. He adopted boxing as a legal substitute for street fighting. The rest is history.
Professional boxing is far from an ideal occupation and it can break the mind as well as the body due to repeated concussions. Like other sport stars, boxers often have trouble adjusting to their post-career situation. Foreman successfully reinvented himself repeatedly, however – as a minister, an author (1), and the pitch man for his namesake grill.
Thinking about resilience as bottle raises an interesting paradox that is too often ignored by psychologists. This is that courage can bring people to criminal offending as well as to more constructive ambitions.
Psychologists sometimes appear too willing to gush about the marvels of resilience without recognizing that the personality traits of successful criminals are uncomfortably close to those of resilient individuals who make it in respectable occupations.
Courage (or bottle) can run to crime or to more constructive ambitions. George Foreman the petty hoodlum was the same person as George Foreman the sports personality who was also the respectable businessman.
We would like to understand why a person with psychological strength may go in either direction. Yet, we do not really know and theories of resilience generally praise the lawful but do not explain how they escaped criminality.
1. Foreman, G. (1995). By George: The autobiography of George Foreman. New York: Villard Books.