The Resilience Secret I Learned From the Apache People

I thought I knew a lot about psychology until I moved to an Apache reservation.

Posted Sep 15, 2015

            "She's strong," someone said, and the other Apache people in the room all nodded in agreement, very slight nods in comparison to the enthusiastic bobbing that one might see in a group of white Americans, but still enough to clearly communicate assent to everyone in the room. Even me.

            I'd been on the San Carlos Apache Reservation long enough to know that they were not referring to physical strength. Although the dominant language on the reservation was now English, not Apache, the Apache have their own dialect of English, and they use many words in ways that are different from mainstream American culture. The woman in question was actually fairly petite and slight of build.  I'm not sure she would have been much of a match in a physical fight.

            So what kind of strength were they talking about? Like a lot of expressions from other cultures, this one is kind of hard to put into mainstream English. You could say that they were talking about emotional strength, and that is definitely a piece of the meaning, but even that doesn't fully communicate the concept. 

            Grit is a trendy term these days, and one might think that the Apache people are talking about an idea that is similar to the one in Angela Duckworth's research.  However, Duckworth's concept of grit is very Western and maybe even very academic. Consider some of the items on the Grit Scale used by Duckworth and colleagues: "New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones;" "My interests change from year to year;" and "I had been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest" (a lot of the items on the Grit Scale are reverse-scored so that disagreeing is a sign of more grit). These are all items about goals and ambitions. 

            The Apache people are definitely not talking about that.  Many Apache people are suspicious of "book learning," as my Appalachian ancestors would call it—this is something people of Apache and Appalachian descent have in common. In their view, too much focus on projects and goals is, if anything, a distraction from what is really important in life. The most admired people in these communities are not the workaholics!

            The modern use of the word grit has been research-ized and academic-ized.  The John Wayne movie, True Grit was closer (let's not talk about the remake). In that movie, grit meant courage and fortitude and those ideas are definitely getting closer to the kind of strength that the Apache people revere (although most are not fond of the portrayals of American Indians in Hollywood Westerns).

            The word endurance comes closer, not physical endurance but the psychological endurance shown by the Apache people as they have survived despite generations of colonization and oppression. That's the English word I think comes closest to conveying the particular features of psychological strength that the Apache people admire.

            However, as I've come to think about it, I think even that might not emphasize strongly enough exactly what endurance looks like. Endurance is about surviving, yes, but it is also about more than surviving. In this way it is similar to what Duckworth means by grit, except that the focus is wrong. 

            It's not your projects and ambitions that need to endure, it's your values. 

            Staying true to yourself no matter what comes your way and no matter what you, your family, and your people have been through. 

            Being there for your family when they need you.

            Not letting life get the better of you.

            It's amazing to me, but psychologists seldom study this. When I wanted to include a measure of endurance in a new study on resilience, I did what all researchers do these days—I Googled it. All that came back were a few studies on aging and grip strength!

            So, we wrote a questionnaire on endurance that starts to get at this idea. It turned out to be one of the best predictors of thriving after adversity out of the 20 or so indicators we looked at!

            Apache wisdom trumped the "usual suspects" of the research world. 

            How can you get more Apache-style strength? First, remember to look outside yourself. Put family and community first. Draw your meaning in life from something larger than you and your own personal self interests and pet projects. Second, these days I have become convinced that expressive writing about your values is the best way to help you focus and organize what's important to you, and that will help you embody your values. I'd also love to hear about any other ideas for increasing your strength in the comments. 

            I'd like to end with a thank you to all of the Apache people who so patiently tried to help me help them. I came to the reservation in the role of a psychologist, the "expert" doctor who was supposed to provide assistance, but I learned at least as much from them as the other way around. For that I am forever grateful.

The Data Doctor

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The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays.

Lately I have gotten interested in mindfulness as another potential path to resilience.  I asked my dear friend and colleague, Bonnie Duran, for some suggestions about learning about mindfulness. I expected her to suggest a few articles to read or maybe a conference to go to. She laughed and said that's not how you learn about mindfulness! So next week I'm off, at her urging, to a week-long silent meditation retreat. No electronics! So no Data Doctor column next week. Wish me luck. I'm quite the novice meditator, so we will see how it goes.

"Wounded by the Million, Healed One by One." —George S. Trow