Some Christmas reflections on resilience – part 1

First part of two posts inspired by some resilience-related conversations with my family over Christmas. This part explores how I see resilience in my family’s lives. The second part is some reflections from my uncle on community resilience in the village they live in.

Since starting this blog (indeed since I’ve been working on resilience generally), I find I tend to look at everything through a resilience “lens” (a horrible phrase I know, but bear with me, I do work in strategy). This Christmas I headed north to spend some time with my family and I found myself thinking about them a lot in terms of the strengths they can draw upon, what they draw from each other, and what goes on in the communities that they live in. Here are some of my reflections.

My grandma

It would be easy to classify my grandma as your typical isolated older person. She is an eighty year old who lives alone, has breathing problems that severely restrict her mobility, and there are no family members within walking distance to drop in on her (even if there are within a short-ish car journey – my grandma doesn’t drive herself). From that description alone, my “professional” mind-set would categorise my grandma as a vulnerable older person. But that doesn’t tell the whole story…

While I was at her house, a neighbour knocked on the window to wish her happy Christmas and share a bit of gossip from the row of old alms houses that they rent. They talked about the other people they knew and how they were looking out for certain neighbours who might not be doing so well, as well as letting each other know their plans for Christmas. This led on to other conversations about the people my grandma interacts with; her paid-for cleaner who acts more like a carer-friend in the tasks she carries out and the relationship they both have. While the walk into town isn’t easy (particularly in bad weather), she has a walking aid that helps her and when she is in town she often meets people she knows (we bumped into a couple of people when we went for lunch on Christmas eve). The story was always the same – she looked out for them, and they looked out for her.

In addition, my grandma uses the telephone. A lot. It can sometimes be a bit of joke about how often she rings people, but being up close it makes perfect sense. When it is dark outside, or there is bad weather or just generally she can’t get out, the telephone is her connection to the outside world. It reminded me of The Silver Line, and my previous musings on the importance of telephones as part of anyone’s resilience structure (and while phone lines do go down, one could argue that my grandma’s regular usage would make any prolonged silence that much more noticeable. By contrast, no-one would think anything was wrong with me if I didn’t pick up the phone!).

I’m not saying that my grandma is super-resilient, far from it, but it was interesting to see how the cumulative effect of a number of little community interactions in her life are strengthening her individual resilience, which too often is sorely tested.

My auntie and uncle

What struck me about my auntie and uncle was the dichotomy between their relatively strong individual resilience and the weaknesses in their immediate community resilience.

I’d like to focus on one aspect of their individual resilience that struck me because it’s a beautiful example of the positive impact we can have on others when we have strengths to share. My aunt, uncle and cousin love archery (in this case a powerful family bonding mechanism), and at their club my uncle coaches a young man who has cerebral palsy. I’ll stop there. A lot of people would see something like archery as being locked away from this young man, but in the words of my uncle “I’m not interested in what people think he can’t do, I’m interested in what he can”. And it turns out that with a bit of help from an ingeniously simple lever system, and in spite of extremely limited physical movement/co-ordination and under-developed cognitive skills, this guy can do archery. It was great hearing how much all of my family talked with affection about him, and more importantly in my mind as a peer. Given his associated learning difficulties, it may be impossible to tell how much the experience increases his resilience, but I can’t help but believe the strengths that my family share do indeed make a big difference. I am extremely proud of them.

I was also interested though in analysing what strengths they draw from their immediate community, and maybe more pertinently, how that has changed over the years.

The village they live in is an odd one; quite “cul-de-sac-y” which can make many streets/homes tricky to get to, one main road running through the middle which not only divides the village when it is open (watching some poor old chap try and cross to get to the chaps made me fear for his life) but also isolates it when it closes as transport links mean you’d have to take the adjoining motorway to go round to the other side. Lots of takeaways though(!) which might not be quite so good for the health and wellbeing of those people in the area, particularly if they drive to the takeaway…

The community feels heavily centred around the local primary school and while this has served my auntie and uncle well in the past, my cousin is now of university age and so it doesn’t have quite the same community anchoring role for them these days. Local debates around road designations (very British) have probably displayed more the fault lines of a changing area rather than galvanised cohesive community action. (note: it isn’t lost on me the very city-centric view I have of all this!)

All in all, there isn’t actually that much there for them, and I doubt they are the only ones. And this surprised me – I’d normally have guessed that small villages would be tight cohesive resilient units, but (and as many studies argue), an urban area has much greater accessible diversity in terms of population and facility, which in turn increases the strengths one can draw on from one’s surroundings. It’s no wonder they’re thinking of moving somewhere a little less quiet…

My cousin

It is university decision time for my cousin. The chatter around this again made me consider the impact of certain choices on how we develop our own personal resilience. The profession she is considering pursuing is likely to lead to a large amount of freelance work – a working life that hugely tests one’s resilience as you have to balance finding work (not always easy), doing work (the fun bit, but still tough), as well as all the admin and management that comes with it (boring but vital if you want to keep doing the more fun stuff).

The course choices she is faced with in turn will shape how well placed she is to cope with these challenges. Does she choose a more structured course that increases her chances of honing her skills to an attractively employable level? Or does she choose a less structured course, that better reflects the real world, but increases the chances of not fully realising the potential of her university education? How far away from home should she go? Does one try and retain links to a tight knit family unit and an established network of friends, or adapt and develop a whole new peer community? What if it all goes wrong? What if it all goes right?

In summary

I could pick out many more examples and reflections, but this is already getting a bit long! So where am I going with all this?

My fairly glib conclusions are that my grandma has low individual resilience but stronger community resilience, my auntie and uncle have stronger individual/household resilience but weaker immediate community resilience, and my cousin is at a transitional cross-roads where not only will her resilience (both individual and community) be tested but it will also get the opportunity to strengthen and flourish in ways she couldn’t imagine.

But quite apart from a colder objective analysis of my family, it made me reflect on how much I admire them all, how I’m glad to call them family, and how being around them gives me strength at times when I feel like I have very little (I probably need to remember this more often than I do).

I can only hope that they can say the same of me.

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