Resilience: Are we using the word mindfully?

As a wordsmith for the better part of my life, I’ve been curious about the use of the word “resillience” in our behavioral treatment and education programs in the military and the VA. Traditionally, something resillient could take opposing forces and come back to its original form.

From the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

1:  the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress

: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

A sponge will keep its shape, form, and composition whether wet or dry. A spring will compress when force is put upon it, and it will decompress back into its shape when the force is lifted. The word has been used when it comes to people

Quite often, the persons to whom the term resilient is applied to first are children who have undergone a shift in familial circumstance. Children who lost a parent were considered “resilient” and could keep going. In the 1970’s, during the time when getting a divorce became more accepted, the word was often used to describe the children. Someone might say in response to hearing the news of a family break up that children were resilient.  Often this would be followed by a nod of the head, relieving all the adult parties of the real impact of the force they were introducing to their children’s world.  Perhaps the reason for doing this is that deep down, we know people aren’t like sponges or springs. A change in circumstance can impact a person in ways that are unknown initially, but might last their entire lives.

 This is not to say that people don’t adjust, however, what I worry about is that when we call someone resilient, we risk overlooking their emotional life.  Good or bad, what happens to an individual affects them, and while they may resemble the same person, inside there is a structural change that affects their spirituality, emotions, perspective, outlook, and often even their physical being.

I have the same observance when it comes to applying the word to the men and women who have fought, suffering great injuries and personal tragedies.  When we use the word resilience, what comes to mind is a phoenix rising from the ashes.

From Psychology Today:

Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. 

This is such an idealized definition, it sounds like an attempt at branding. To an extent, we need words like resilience around our wounded warriors and their families. Resilience used in this context, conjures up hope. It stirs visions that are cinema-perfect: the victorious but injured warrior crossing the finish line; the shattered family coming through obstacles loving one another unconditionally.

 But I wonder if some might feel “resilience” is tossed at them like a bone. That perhaps some guilt might come over them because they’re not having enough Harry Potter’s quidditch moments. I think there is danger in blithely using the word resilient and glossing over how trauma affects the mind, body, and spirit.  Can meaningful expression be stymied by such a romanticized description of resilience?

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the military’s use of the word resilience. There are more programs, support, and an understanding than before. I just want to make sure we don’t blithely say “resilience,” and leave it at that. War changes everyone. Rather than springing back to our original form, the individual, families and friends, need help in adjusting to changes, learning how to encounter each point along this new path, as we realize we are both vulnerable and strong.