What is With the Cult of Resilience?
Alana Casanova-Burgess: I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess, in for Melissa Harris-Perry. Good to be with you this week. This year, I hosted a podcast series called La Brega, an anthology of stories about Puerto Rico. To be in la brega is to be in the struggle, to find a creative way around a challenge that you can't quite solve. You can only just cope with it. As someone who has reported on Hurricane Maria and the debt crisis, there's one word that really sticks out to me when I hear it. Resilience.
Reporter 1: Puerto Ricans' resilience on display.
Reporter 2: I see the plight of the Puerto Rico people. They're very resilient.
Reporter 3: Such resilience. Tremendously resilient.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: This language makes me want to crack a molar. The word resilient, when applied to people going through hardship, puts the focus on individuals for being strong, instead of asking why they need superhuman strength to begin with. In the pandemic, we've seen this word resilience in headline after headline. A couple of weeks ago, just as everything was feeling very much like March 2020, I saw a how-to piece that made me clench my jaw extra hard. A guide to cultivating resilience in 2022. You can become stronger in this time of challenge. The article said. "Even stronger?" I wondered going into a third year, and it turns out a lot of you are also really tired of being told how not to be so tired.
David: Hey, this is David from New York City. How do I feel about calls for personal resilience and grit during the pandemic? I can't help but think that those calls must be coming from people replete with tremendous good fortune and privilege because even before the pandemic, I was howling that Americans are just overworked to the bone, and to navigate that, in the midst of a pandemic, is too much for so many people to deal with. So, calls for grit and personal resilience sound, to me, spectacularly out of touch with real people.
Melanie: Hi, this is Melanie calling from Chester, South Carolina. As a healthcare provider, a mom, and former teacher, I feel that these calls for continued personal resilience are frankly, just-- so tired of hearing it. It's just a little overwhelming, and it's okay to be a little sad. It's okay to be a little disappointed that plans have to be changed, and continuing to talk about resilience and blowing what seems to be artificial positivity, it's, at this point, just a little too much.
Belinda: Hi. I think calls for resilience and grit during the pandemic are awful, and that they most burden the people who have spent all of their resilience and grit, or whose resilience and grit is already necessary for the other things they and we struggle with. This is Belinda from Oakland, California. Thanks.
Caller: For too many of my friends, including myself at times, just trying to exist at a subsistence level is a radical act. We shouldn't have to develop more grit just to get through this.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Another person who is frustrated with the word, and has been for a while, is Lyz Lenz, a journalist, and author of Belabored. Liz also puts out a newsletter called Men Yell At Me, where she recently wrote about the same self-help articles that have caught my eye. I asked her, can you define personal resilience? What are we talking about when we talk about resilience?
Lyz Lenz: I think there is our cultural conversation of resilience, which is really this capitalist bootstrappy ethic of, "You just got to live your best life, and find a way to overcome the odds," but my own personal definition of resilience is a lot more complicated because I actually don't believe that you can overcome the odds all the time, nor should you, and that cultural definition of resilience really shirks the responsibility of what we've done as a nation, of the way that we've built inequality into our system, and then we just expect people to bootstrap themselves through it when it's impossible. My own personal definition of resilience is more like lying on the floor, screaming. [chuckles] That's how I do it.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: If it's not clear to everyone already, you and I are both frustrated by this encouragement to somehow find grit and strength in this moment, but to be clear, I just want to acknowledge, we're not saying getting help for a mental health crisis is ridiculous and not a fair ask. Can you help me tease out why the resilience narrative feels so wrong while actually treating things like depression and anxiety is totally reasonable?
Lyz Lenz: Yes. I would like to say I do see a therapist regularly, and I recommend it if you can.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Same, same, same.
Lyz Lenz: Yes, it's so wonderful. It's so good. There is getting the help you need, but there is also a narrative in our nation. We're going into a third year of a pandemic. Over 800,000 people are dead, and yet there's still this emphasis on living your best life while people are dying, and while our nation is falling apart at the seams, while democracy is under attack, while reproductive rights are being rolled back, voting is being restricted.
Then there's also this narrative-- Before I took myself off of Facebook, I saw on Facebook, somebody post like, "Oh, here's all the things that I've been learning, and all my self-growth through the pandemic," and I was like, "What is the point of this? People are dying. Yet somehow we have this emphasis on hashtag living our best lives. Why is it not okay to live our worst lives? People are dying. If we can't live our worst lives now, then when can we?"
My friend and the author, Kate Baller, talk about this a lot, that we have this cultural ethic of always just overcoming when sometimes things cannot be overcome. Structural racism is not just something you can self-help your way out of. We have a society that continues to refuse to have paid parental leave or have affordable childcare. Women are being forced out of their jobs at a rate that has not been seen since post-World War II when we forced women out of their jobs so that the soldiers could have them back when they came home from war. Our society is regressing.
You can't just mind over matter this crap, and I don't think you should have to, but I do think it is really hard to have that conversation because we live in a society that's just so focused on not seeing the dark underbelly, of not seeing the reality. My own personal ethic of resilience says we got to grapple with that. I'm not going to go forward and live my best life while friends and family are dying, and my neighbors. I live in a red state. It's been really hard to find a way to live ethically, and morally, and with care and compassion for everyone. It's a struggle and I think it should be a struggle, and we should acknowledge that struggle.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: There's this way that we talk about individual resilience with infrastructure. For example, we want our bridges and our buildings to withstand climate change and natural disasters, and that totally makes sense. I know you live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a town that has seen a lot of intense flooding and destruction in the past decade. Are you thinking about resilience on that scale in any sense related to this frustrating resilience on the individual scale?
Lyz Lenz: We fetishize the person who can overcome the odds and ignore all the other people who were overcome by the odds, because if we can do that, then we can ignore the way that our system is failing people. If we focus on the self-made millionaire, we can ignore all the system-made people who are in poverty, but there is no such thing as a self-made millionaire. There's no such thing as somebody who overcame all the odds by themselves. People get help but we want to, I think, as a culture, especially in American culture, we want to focus on those stories so that we can ignore how our system is failing and our system is crumbling, and it's hard to ignore how the system is crumbling. We are the wealthiest nation in the world. We had health frontline workers who were not able to get the PPE that they needed.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: There's this way that we talk about individual resilience with infrastructure, for example, we want our bridges and our built links to withstand climate change and natural disasters. That totally makes sense. I know you live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a town that has seen a lot of intense flooding and destruction in the past decade. Are you thinking about resilience on that scale?
Lyz Lenz: Yes. I've lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa since 2005, and since then, you could argue it's my fault that since I moved here, we've had two historic floods and an inland hurricane we had last year, which completely destroyed our town. The way that the town talks about the recovery of that inland hurricane, also called a derecho, it was really frustrating because we talk about like, oh, how we overcame it, but people were left homeless on the street for five days while our town was struggling to even figure out recovery.
When we talk about, we overcame it, who overcame what? Yes, that's what I'm talking about. In our narratives of triumph, we don't forget who we left behind. Because it's not really a triumph if people were left homeless on the street for five days. I was working for my local paper then. I put my cell phone number in an article in the paper. I had senior citizens calling me because they were starving. [sniffs] Sorry. That memory just always gets me every time and now the story is, "Yes, we overcame and we're replanting trees."
I just can't get those voices out of my head. I just think some people are okay, but who isn't okay? Who got left behind, who never made it back to their home from the Red Cross shelter? Who had to live out of their cars? I just want us to be thinking about this when we think about our resiliency, when we think about rebuilding roads or childcare tax credits, who's allowed to overcome and who's allowed to have grit, and who's left homeless and starving.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Resilience is a response to trauma, but our trauma, as you've written, is not yet over when it comes to this pandemic. Lyz Lenz is a journalist and author of Belabored. She also has a newsletter called Men Yell At Me where she recently wrote about being frustrated with personal resilience. Lyz, thank you so much.
Lyz Lenz: Thank you.
Keith: Hi, this is Keith from Dallas, and I feel like grit and resilience don't play any part in keeping the pandemic from getting worse. This is not a macho thing. This is a medical thing. Time will tell. The survivors of this are going to be people who are smart and who have followed directions.
Rob: This is Rob from Boston, South Shore. The idea of personal resilience or grit during the pandemic, I find it interesting that most of the people that seem to be making this call are not mental health professionals, don't work in the field. They just want to be tough guys.
Emily Jones: Hi, my name is Emily Jones, and I'm calling from West Orange, New Jersey. I feel like calls for personal resilience and developing grit during the pandemic are insulting to how much folks have already dug in and used almost all of the grit and resilience we've had, while politicians and business folks have been able to live a life using less of their grit because of the cushions they have and the privilege that they're exercising to do more of what they want and less of what the general public really, really needs during these hard times.
Julie Mos: This is Julie Mos, and I'm calling from Fairfax in California. I think calls to resilience are useless because they don't address at all the barriers to resilience, which are fundamentally childhood trauma. Without addressing that and ways to deal with that, it's impossible to urge people to be resilient, or rather it's useless.
Mindy: Hi, this is Mindy from Los Angeles. I'm the head of operations for a company that [unintelligible 00:14:50] essential workers. We've been working with the public since April of 2020. Resilience is absolutely necessary, but I think it has to be balanced with patience and grace. This is exhausting, and I can't even imagine what it's like for medical workers, but having compassion for the people around you, especially in the workplace, I find that when one person is weak, we can lean on each other, but resilience, I guess, all in all, is a group effort and yes, it's exhausting.
Lindsey: This is Lindsey from Salt Lake. I think it's a load of horse crap. Why should we ask people who are dealing with intense grief, loss, and PTSD to be resilient and have grit? That's not what we would ask anyone to do, who is struggling in a time of intense change and trauma. Let's stop asking people to be resilient. We are not doing anything normal. We can't be normal. Let's instead deal with the trauma that we are experiencing.
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