The Profound Emptiness of “Resilience”


Illustration by Javier Jaen. Umbrella: Resavskyi/iStock/Getty Images

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 1, 2015

THERE ARE MANY versions of the bird’s death, but in each, it rises the same way — out of its own ashes and into the sun. The myth of the phoenix, that symbol of endurance, began in Arabian and Egyptian folklore and was brought to the West by Herodotus 2,500 years ago.

We have an ancient attraction to stories of resilience, but recently, the word itself has achieved a more prosaic popularity. Deriving from the Latin for ‘‘to jump again,’’ ‘‘resilience’’ has sprung into new life as a catchword in international development and Silicon Valley and among parenting pundits and TED-heads. Hundreds of books have been published on the topic this year, mostly with a focus on toughening up your investment portfolio or your toddler. We’ve seen encomiums to the resilience of Paris and Beirut after terrorist attacks — but also to Justin Bieber, after his weepy comeback performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s a word that is somehow so conveniently vacant that it manages to be profound and profoundly hollow.

Almost any organization you can think of has squeezed ‘‘resilience’’ into its mission statement: The United States Agency for International Development has an explicit ‘‘Resilience Agenda’’; the Department of Homeland Security lists two of its core goals as enhancing ‘‘the security and resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure.’’ The word has started swallowing up creakier competitors in jargon’s version of the survival of the fittest, supplanting ‘‘security’’ and ‘‘sustainability.’’ At an event in March called ‘‘Uniting Nations, People and Action for Resilience,’’ Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, explained that ‘‘we cannot stop disasters, but we can anticipate the risks and reduce them.’’

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting. Best-­selling books like ‘‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,’’ by Paul Tough, and ‘‘The Triple Package,’’ by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, argue that children need to encounter difficulties, to learn how to push past their own frustration.

But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character. ‘‘It’s pretty much the same message that’s drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-­century chant invented to make children do their homework: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ ’’ the social scientist Alfie Kohn argued in an op-ed article in The Washington Post. ‘‘The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-­discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.’’

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