I won’t give my dog a cooked bone. At family gatherings, when such a thing is waved in his direction, I will raise the palm of my hand to close off this avenue of pleasure. The dog’s disappointment will be hard to bear, as will the scorn of the relatives who will say something along the lines of, “Ah rubbish. Look at all the strays you see fending for themselves on beaches abroad and whatnot! They get thrown all sorts of scraps and they’re just fine!”
This is right and wrong. But mainly wrong. Yes, the dogs you see might be doing OK, but they’re the survivors, the most resilient of their litters. We don’t see those who didn’t make it, so it’s only the survivors’ tales that are told; the less fortunate are forgotten. The narrative of resilience is skewed, as we only tend to hear one side of it.
What we’re left with, in the form of many a specious aphorism, is pretty much garbage. Things like: “[Insert something bad]? Well, it never did me any harm!” Or, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Yes, well, up to a point. I once told a psychologist that while I was bullied a bit at school, I thought I’d come out the stronger for it. He told me, most forcefully, almost angrily, that I was lucky, as many people who are bullied suffer lasting damage.
So my story was less about resilience than about luck. And I saw that I’d been guilty of the same kind of arrogance practised by the successful person who believes in meritocracy – that is, I am successful because my talent and work ethic have got me here. So, the unsuccessful obviously lack one or both of these things. I survived bullying because I was resilient; the rest weren’t, poor things.
This all came back to me during a conversation on the radio with Bruce Daisley, sometime European VP of Twitter, now a writer and consultant. In Fortitude – The Myth of Resilience, and the Secrets of Inner Strength, he chips away at our veneration of resilience. It’s something we all aspire to, admire in others, and want our children to develop. But what is it? And can it be taught?
In his view, as its nature isn’t properly understood, too much money is wasted on professional training with the aim of developing resilience. And, as he points out, in the same way that no one has ever become calmer or less depressed by being told to calm down or cheer up, “Never in the history of resilience has someone become more resilient by being told, ‘Be more resilient.’”
What’s the answer? He says the key myth is that resilience is all about the individual. Footballer X, actor Y or politician Z all had terrible starts in life but, being so resilient, defied the odds to dominate in their fields. It’s a compelling tale. But the truth is that resilience isn’t about you. It’s those around you who make you resilient; it doesn’t happen in isolation.
Martin Sheen, who played the US president in The West Wing, once said that he couldn’t play the role on his own. It was less about his acting than the acting of those around him, in how they communicated that their characters were deferring to the wisdom and charisma of the president. Through this prism I see that while any individual needs to draw on their own resilience, of equal if not greater power is the resilience that we can help them realise by being there for them. Resilience, it turns out, is a team game.