Transformational Resilience

Is there a good resilience and a bad resilience?

Posted Apr 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Normally we praise resilience and encourage individuals to increase their resilience when facing challenging moments. Yet, what is resilience? And is it always safe to encourage people to be resilient? Are there good and bad moments for resilience?

What is resilience?

The notion of resilience finds its roots in philosophy, ecology, psychology, and engineering (Fleming, Ledogar, 2008). From an etymological point of view, the word resilire points to two different Latin roots, resilire and resalire. The former means bouncing back, recoiling, rebounding. The latter points to the compound of the prefix re and the verb salire to refer to the fast movement of jumping back (Oxford Latin Dictionary, Fascicle VII, 1980). In a certain sense, resilience indicates the ability to bounce back after a traumatic experience.

Different from what is commonly believed, resilience is not such a young concept. The psychological and physical qualities of the word resilience had not been introduced, as usually claimed, in the last century but instead its origin dates back to much older philosophical roots indicating this capacity of rebouncing (Stephanus Chauvin’s Lexicon Philosophicum, Descartes, Mersenne, Bacon, Genovesi). 

Later on, in 1973 the Canadian ecologist C. S. Holling used the word resilience to name a specific elastic property of materials to rebounce and the scientific world welcomed this term seemingly as new (Walsh, 1995). Similar to his predecessors in modern philosophy, Holling’s scientific article explains resilient as both the time and the energy that it takes for the impacted material to return to an equilibrium and the capacity of that material to absorb variances while reorganizing its structure (Holling, 1973, 1-23). A few years later, in 1982, Emmy Werner employed this same term in psychology for a longitudinal study of children and youth (Werner 1982, 1995, 2001). By resilience, she meant the ability of human beings to absorb the effects of a traumatic change and to reorganize their resources into new strategies. Through over 40 years of study, she measured the resilience potential of Kauai students to succeed in reaching a satisfactory quality of life despite the social and economic poverty of their life conditions (Werner, 1997). Via the Health Realization Model proposed by Mills and Schuford (2003), resilience became a psycho-physiological concept considered as innate and intrinsic of human nature: our heart pulsing, our eating and digesting functions — within humans are wired resilient functions and the task of good educators is to humor these innate functions when the system is under pressure.

Questioning resilience

Is it always right to encourage individuals to resilience? Is it always good to jump back on that sinking boat? Both the psychological and the ecological uses of resilience seem to point to a relapse to the status quo before the disruptive event. If we examine the meaning of resilience we see how its meaning seems to involve the normative expectation of ‘recoiling’ to the status quo before the disruptive event occurred. This implies a law of formal permanence that leaves no space for real change to occur in the life of the individual. In other words, the positive value we attach to resilience is measured on one’s ability to ‘jump back’ (Latin, resalire), so to speak, onto that very boat which had capsized and left us in the water. The word resilience, as it is used today, implies that real healing is only possible through recoiling to the status quo ante the disruptive event. The philosophies of Plato and Nietzsche present an interesting form of transformational resilience.

Plato and Nietzsche for transformational resilience

Although under a different term, in philosophy the notion of resilience had already been expressed by Plato and, later on, by Nietzsche. In his Politeia, Plato describes the resilient person as a θυμοειδές (thymoeides), a courageous person whose strength does not come from carelessness or lack of awareness but from a deep connection with its true soul (Plato, Politeia, IV, 430b). In the dialogues of his Republic (book IV) and Phaedrus (246a-254e) the thymoeides is described as the part of the soul that aligns with the rational part (logistikon) of the soul without being tempted by the appetites of the ἐπιθυμητικόν (epithymetikon), the desiderative part. Being thymoeides means to possess a moral virtue that stems from a sentiment (συν+θυμός) of connectedness (συν) with one’s own thymos (θυμός translatable with courage, spirit). The courageous/resilient person sees with clarity and in an essential way (eidos, the past of ὁράω to have seen and therefore to know) their own spirit and has the strength to connect with it without being tempted by contingent needs. This does not imply that the thymoeides has to permanently resist in order to express its courage; it is possible for a metamorphosis to occur that allows actual strength to flourish.

In a similar way, Nietzsche developed the notion of resilience by reflecting on courage and identity. In the last year of his mental clarity, Nietzsche wrote a sentence that would appear in both Götzen-Dämmerung (1983) and the famous collection Der Wille zur Macht: “From the school of the war of life—What does not kill me, makes me stronger” (1983, 26). This sentence became so famous that the echo of its popularity left behind any trace of its actual author and his intentions. Nietzsche’s contribution to resilience theory (Lecomte, 2002) has been associated with the understanding of post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi, Calhoun 2004) and the enrichment of meaning (Neenan 2009; Botturi 2010; Casula 2011; Hitchens 2012; Cantoni 2014) that follows a resilient event.

Both in Nietzsche and in Plato, resilience is described as a process that, if undergone, would make you stronger because, even though events may be painful to endure, it is this pain that allows you to discover your true self and to be in contact with it. The resilient human being is a warrior who heals the vulnus of its own soul and comes back to life as a new person who is now above its usual limits, a super-human being (Übermensch).

Are there good and bad moments for resilience?

The analysis provided by Nietzsche and Plato points us in a direction that considers the strength of resilience to be the ability to reconnect with one’s own self after a traumatic event occurs; if this self is replaced by empty expectations to come back to what the self was before the event, then resilience becomes a source of growing unhappiness and uneasiness. As the analysis of Plato and Nietzsche showed, resilience is only possible when actual connection to personal needs and values occurs. 

Good Resilience

Resilient persons and communities are those with the courage to go through traumatic events without losing touch with inner pressing values. In that sense, true resilience involves, at times, a complete metamorphosis of the status quo before the emotional (or structural) breakdown of the individual (or system) to the point that all that was before the event is no longer recognizable. Recognizing and developing a pattern of ‘good’ resilience for individual and communitarian growth is very important, otherwise resilience would develop its dark side (Olson, 2015, Davidson, 2010) for which it provides a normative excuse for the poor to remain poor and to let concepts like solidarity slip into oblivion (Vrasti, 2016). If resilience is taken not as a re-salire (jumping back) on a sinking boat but as a transformational resilire (rebounding) in front of situational challenges, then we have a real chance to improve our personal and societal well-being.


Works Cited

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Oxford Latin Dictionary, Fascicle VII, ed. P. G. W. Glare, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980

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Werner EE, Smith RS. Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience and Recovery. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001.