Recovery – the resilience taboo?

It’s been a while since my last post on this topic. I’ve missed posting but I’m also acutely aware that what started out as a blog to capture my work in an open and transparent way has also become a place that captures me in an open and transparent way. Perhaps this has made me more cautious about sharing my thoughts, however given the whole point of this blog is about sharing, I should probably learn to get over myself.

Today, I want to share some thoughts about the idealistic rhetoric surrounding resilience (both individual and community). I particularly want to challenge it.

During my time at Camden, we struggled for a long time (as policy wonks are wont to do) on how to define “resilience”. We were obsessed with ensuring that it wasn’t just about how one responds to challenging situations but how one develops a range of strengths and resources to “thrive as well as survive” (note: I have to come to hate this rather patronising and twee phrase). I guess I still don’t mind this angle that much; after all it allows the resilience conversation to align neatly with assets-based thinking which I am a big fan of, and of course puts the emphasis on developing one’s resilience BEFORE it is needed so that we are all better prepared. This makes sense.

My issue of late is that the conversation has been so dominated by making the case for investing up front in resilience, that too many of us (myself included) have lost sight of the “during” and the “after” effects. I’ll give you a very simple example.

Last weekend I ran a half marathon. There isn’t anything too special about this. I’ve run a few and only last month I did my first marathon. When I got to the last mile my legs gave out and I had to walk. This has NEVER happened to me, not even on my first run. I was annoyed at the time because the rest of me was functioning fine! Runners around me were gasping for air and waterfalling sweat while I was jogging along in relative serenity, but as they powered on I could only shut down. I was embarrassed, but really it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’ve spent the summer training for my first marathon and within three weeks of completing it I had added a 19 km training run and a half marathon. In short, my legs were knackered.

In training I had built physical resilience to endure a marathon, but I had also used it all up (read up about marathon training – it’s fascinating how much it is an exercise in learning how to recover from damaging yourself!) and so of course when I looked to use it again, I was left wanting.

I have another example around my intellectual and emotional capacity, but maybe that’s a little too raw to share right now. However when I think about my running example I can see exact parallels – spending dedicated time to strengthen my mental resilience, using it all for a period I know will be tough, but then struggling (shutting down if you will) when I then try to use it again without restoring it.

Readers of these posts will know that I tend to, rightly or wrongly, apply what I learn about my own resilience to the topic of community resilience. When I do so in this case, I see something very worrying. I see councils, governments, charities etc investing in strengthening communities and households to cope with evolving pressures our society is facing. I see those communities succeeding, with terrific examples of people coming together and responding to challenges that seem impossible. I see inspiration and confidence. I see this confidence being its own enemy as even greater asks are placed on people who have already given huge amounts, if not everything. And on the back of this I see tragic collapses and ruins. I see people who don’t understand why it didn’t work this time. I see people who are ashamed. I see people who are angry.

What I don’t see, is anyone around to tell them that what has happened is ok. That it was expected. That they can achieve great things again, they just need a bit of rest.

This last point is on my mind a lot, and it is something I think is missing from resilience strategies/conversations I’ve come across. I guess I’d call them whole-life resilience approaches which go beyond the up front investment stage and actively build in what is needed to support individual and community resilience during a challenge and most importantly during the recovery stage.

I’ve read the phrase “bouncing forward” as opposed to bouncing back a lot. This is the idea that we don’t return to our previous state of being but we improve through applying our resilience. I agree that this is possible, but unless we respect our recovery stages, I don’t agree it is inevitable.

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One Response to Recovery – the resilience taboo?

  1. Thanks for an excellent blog Alex.

    As someone who has essentially created a “resilience service” with OurCamden, this is timely reading.

    For me, it is intrinsically linked to our understanding of failure. We know that all attempts to create anything, whether as an individual or community, may not work. We start with an idea that we think might work, we create and – in good old lean start up terms- we adjust (or wholly pivot) our model to fit.

    I work in the social enterprise world and am astonished why people are so shocked when things don’t work all the time. Why should they? Just because you call yourself a social enterprise doesn’t give you a 100% guarantee that it will work. Most new businesses fail.

    But we will learn. We will have some successes. We will evolve our thinking and approach.

    Sadly we live in a culture that takes great glee in others failing.

    Especially when you are trying a new approach.

    I was humbled when, last year, working with a group of students from Loughborough University who have created a social enterprise that promotes talking about failure, and see failure as an essential step to growth.

    It’s OK to get things wrong. Or to try something new that doesn’t quite work. Or to have to rest up for a bit because the journey is long.

    Undoubtedly, keeping moving on – in the long run (no pun intended!) – is real resilience.

    Liked by 1 person

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