“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo - 
far more flexible than you'd ever believe at first glance.”

Jodi Picoult, My Sister's Keeper

How many of us really have a clear sense of our capacity to flex and curve adaptively under life’s cargo of tribulations? Our potential to reconfigure and find our feet again after upheaval is perhaps the greatest of all our human capacities, and one targeted towards survival and prosperity. It may also be one that is only minimally appreciated.

If we look to nature as tutorial, we find that adaptation is key to survival.  Threat - and even catastrophe – need not mean destruction. Perils to nature’s welfare, such as wild fires and climatic severity, often bring forth a re-versioning of things in order that life proceed - and triumph. 

Bengal bamboo, for instance, has adapted to its home in the Southeast Asian rainforests by growing at one of the fastest rates of any plant. It does this to ensure its place high up in the forest canopy where it can take in the sunlight it needs to make its food. Also, it has responded to the extreme hydration of the rainforest by forming vascular bundles that absorb water and send it up the tall cane (Owen: "Adaptations for Bamboo Plants"). Bamboo’s environmental challenges are simultaneously evolutionary stimulus. And the greater the plant’s capacity for adaptation, the more resourceful it can be in its particular world.  

In human terms we might think of our trials as developmental spur, prodding us to make the kinds of conversions and renewals on which we can thrive. In the case of nature and humans, appropriate adaptation is what makes the miracle.

Catastrophe brings enormous consequences. Most immediately a disaster robs the world of its safety and 'good-enough' predictability and reliability. It consumes vast reserves of emotional energy, wears down resources, and often etches deep traumatic injuries. Processes of healing and recuperation need to be accommodated. Resilience does not imply immunity to injury, shock, disillusionment and despair, and nor does it exclude the possibility that we might at times need support to grieve, adjust and adapt, and finally, to reclaim our vitality.

What is Resilience?
Much like nature evolves new hardiness and inventive re-formations to thrive in spite of impingements, we humans have a potential to bounce back from our setbacks, to grow from trauma, and to be – to some extent – like bamboo. 

The concept of resilience apparently derives from physics, describing the quality of material that regains its original shape after being bent, compressed or stretched (Gunnestad, 2006). 

I like to think, though, that human resilience is far more creative a process than this, seldom returning us to a carbon copy of our pre-adversity shape, but more likely crafting a far more interesting and infinitely more contoured form than where we started. Human resilience, then, is less about restoring the status quo and more about growth and new possibilities for burgeoning. 

Resilience is variable between people in very individual ways. For some, the bounce-back response is strong and reliable, whereas others take that much longer to resurface after an emotional thump. A great many factors influence these differences, important among them our personal histories of experience; the relative security (or otherwise) of our attachments and the kinds of foundations these cast for self- and other-relating; the particular schemas we’ve constructed and internalized for managing difficulties; our levels of motivation to succeed (and this in itself dependent on so many factors) – and closely related to all of that - our perceived durability of self; and so forth.

The bounce-back factor has much to do with a hardiness of self and a range of capacities for favourable adaptation. 

How Relevant is Resilience?
Much of Western psychology has primed us to look at what is faulty or deficient. This is a focus that has not necessarily served people well.

Resilience is a helpful concept because it invites us to think about what works in our favour, rather than dwell on what is “out of order”. It shifts the emphasis from deficiency to resources, and connects us with reserves for managing our troubles (DuPlessis VanBreda: “Resilience Theory: A Literature Review ..."). Resilience reminds us that triumph – in a relative sense - is often a part of life’s most challenging experiences. 

Community Resilience in Crisis
In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit (2010) describes how huge disasters chisel the kinds of communities in which extraordinary human benevolence and good citizenship win through. Massive disasters affecting entire communities often shift the mindset from self-interest to community and service, bringing out the best in people and revealing considerable resilience in response to catastrophe. Hardiness, endurance, sharing of limited resources, personal sacrifice for the good of the group, courage, dedicated care of those most vulnerable – these are some of the qualities that arise in communities in acute distress. Set aside for a minute, says Solnit (2010), all you ever heard about 9/11, 

Put all that away and look at it as a local disaster, as the fiery collapse of two colossi and the shattering of sixteen densely inhabited acres, with the strange toxic cloud of pulverized architecture, computers, asbestos, heavy metals, and human lives spreading around the city, the storms of office papers drifting over water to come to ground in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and refugees streaming in all directions, and the local effects of disrupted transit and work, health concerns, and rescue efforts. Only then can you see what the media in their rush to go to the centers of power and the labyrinths of Middle East politics and the stock of clichés about rescuers and victims largely missed: the extraordinary response of the people of that city (pp 283-284).

Solnit points out how the resilience that manifests spontaneously in communities during disasters tends to be either overlooked or dismissed by authorities and governments – a reminder that resilience is there, but not always acknowledged or appreciated.  

Can we Grow our Resilience?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA: "The Road to Resilience"), we can expand our resilience in a number of ways. Some of the avenues are very practical: stress reduction, through healthy diet, exercise, inclusion of activities that promote wellbeing, getting enough sleep and so on, is likely to improve resilience. 

Other of the avenues I think of as process tools. Developing greater compassion for our struggles can yield richly when adopted as an ongoing process. One of the ways of developing kindness and generosity to self is to practise Focusing. This useful personal development practice developed by Eugene Gendlin encompasses self-empathy as part of its core skills. (For more information, see the website of the Focusing Institute

Bringing into awareness the resiliencies we already have, can be a useful stock-take.  Below are some of the questions we might ask ourselves (gently and without condemnation!):
How have I got through difficult situations before and how was I resourceful?
What helped me most?
What do I know I can rely on in myself?
What would people who know me well say about my resilience? 
What might I need now in this situation to get through?
What outcome would I like to happen?

The APA ("The Road to Resilience") suggests that building good relationships; accepting change as an inevitable part of living; being willing to self-discover; holding the longer-range view; being decisive and taking action of some sort; benefiting from meditation or spiritual practice are all part of building resilience. 

Mindfulness meditation is a good way of becoming familiar - and a little more comfortable - with change. Mindfulness practice allows us to observe, on the micro-scale of our own moment-to-moment lived experience, that both external and internal phenomena are ever shifting and re-visioning. 

Gratitude as Resilience-Booster
In recent years, the benefits of gratitude practice and its link with happiness and resilience have been much in the spotlight. Gratitude practices may even top the list of resilience boosters. Gratitude researchers Robert Emmonds and Michael McCullough have shown that keeping a gratitude journal – and not a copious one either – is distinctly beneficial. They found that jotting down a single sentence of gratitude for just five things once a week achieved greater happiness and optimism for the people who adopted the practice. After two months the positive effects of the gratitude journal were considerably greater (Tierney, “A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day”, 2011).

Positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman found that regular gratitude practice increases overall happiness and optimism. One specific Seligman study found that writing and sharing a gratitude letter (in some detail - around 300 words) increased happiness for up to a month thereafter
. Gratitude has been linked with resilience, the research indicating that positive emotions arising from gratitude practice can potentially “undo” some of the fallout from negative emotions (Lyubomirsky and Della Porta, “Boosting Happiness, Buttressing Resilience ...", n.d.).  

Indigenous Wisdom and Resilience
Indigenous wisdom enriches our concept of resilience. Some of the characteristics of resilience in Aboriginal communities are spirituality, holism, resistance and forgiveness (Tousignant, n.d.) These are a powerful combination of attitudes and processes. Having both resistance and forgiveness part of the mix creates an expansive set of possibilities.

The Limits and Possibilities of Our Resilience
Can we really know the outer limits of our resilience? Resilience measurement scales might imply that resilience can be quantified, but in my own experience it can be hard to know the outer limits of resilience. For one thing, each new experience of adversity is a fresh test of our resilience. At times hidden assets might pop into view unexpectedly; at other times we may feel emotionally spent surprisingly soon. Over time, our resilience can change, and it can change in either direction.

In Eugene Gendlin's optimistic view of our human nature, rooted in his Philosophy of the Implicit, every bit of human experience has in it at least a piece - no matter how small or 'hidden' - that is trying to triumph and live well. Resilience, potentially, exists in every situation, even when it doesn’t “succeed” in any discernible sense. And so it makes good sense to actively tap into, encourage and unfold our inherently life-supporting impulses.


American Psychological Association, “The Road to Resilience”, accessed 09 February 2016, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx

Andersson, N: “Affirmative Challenges in Indigenous Resilience Research”, accessed 09 February 2016, http://www.pimatisiwin.com/uploads/1762621053.pdf.

DuPlessis VanBreda, A: “Resilience Theory: A Literature Review with special chapters on deployment resilience in military families & resilience theory in social work”, Contents and Abstract, accessed 09 February 2016, http://www.vanbreda.org/adrian/resilience/resilience1.pdf.

Focusing Institute Website: http://www.focusing.org.

Gunnestad, A: “Resilience in a Cross-Cultural Perspective: How resilience is generated in different cultures”, Journal of Intercultural Communication, 2006, issue 11, accessed 09 February 2016, http://www.immi.se/intercultural/nr11/gunnestad.htm.

Lyubomirsky, S and Della Porta, M: “Boosting Happiness, Buttressing Resilience: Results from Cognitive and Behavioral Interventions”, accessed 09 February 2016, http://sonjalyubomirsky.com/wp-content/themes/sonjalyubomirsky/papers/LDinpressb.pdf

Owen, T: “Adaptations for Bamboo Plants”,  eHow Discover, accessed 09 February 2016, http://www.ehow.com/list_7770955_adaptations-bamboo-plants.html.
Solnit, R: A Paradise Built in Hell. The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (London, Penguin Books, 2010).

Tierney, J: “A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day”, The New York Times, November 21, 2011,  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/science/a-serving-of-gratitude-brings-healthy-dividends.html?_r=1
Tousignant, M: “Resilience and Aboriginal Communities in Crisis: Theory and Interventions”, accessed 09 February 2016, http://www.naho.ca/jah/english/jah05_01/V5_I1_Resilience_03.pdf