In material science, resilience is the ability of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically, and release that energy upon unloading. Proof resilience is defined as the maximum energy that can be absorbed up to the elastic limit, without creating a permanent distortion.
Resilience, I’ve been told by a number of people recently, has become a bit of a buzzword in different fields. I want to find our more about it in different disciplines, but it’s the movement between the absorption and the recovery that I’m interested in right now. What is it about us as human beings that we can withstand shock, loss, devastation and what is it about us that we manage to begin to recover, to engage with an imagined future again? What is the journey, how do we do it, start moving, dreaming, remaking our lives? Today I was at a Going Green Going Local event that was part of Hidden Civil War, a project I’ve been involved in since early this year. During the workshop, which explored action learning in the context of how we make change happen, one man described how a dream he had been working towards for a number of years was entirely disrupted by ill health, forcing him to begin exploring other possibilities. That capacity to respond to a crisis and what goes on in the space between that and the move towards recovery is what intrigues me. Sometimes I edge along minutely to thinking about how we begin to imagine, even dream and hope again. What is the process by which we recover to the extent that we can follow a new vision, build a new life?
As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been wondering about the physical dimension of rebuilding, or rather about the importance of the physical and experiential when it comes to moving from hopes and dreams towards making them substantial.
The ideas set out by Matthew Crawford in his book The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction interest me – he argues for the importance of skills that bring us into contact with the physical world – including people – in order to reclaim the “attentional commons” and flourish as social individuals.
Re-engagement with the world is at the heart of Christina Rasmussen’s book about recovering from grief. ‘Time doesn’t heal, action does’ is one of her mantras. And I’ve found that building physical strength and stamina is really helping me in this. Inspired by Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s book Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human. I’ve been running more, and running further. It’s helping me to feel less inside my head and go to beyond the edges of myself. I want to locate myself in the realm beyond me, try and make sense of things in the environment I find myself in.
All this is helping me understand why early on after Mark’s death I felt the pull of art and activism, the sense I had that I needed to intertwine myself, my thoughts and hopes beyond my immediate landscape. I could only do it minutely then, but as time goes by I’m realising that those small gestures were pointers towards a deeper understanding of how this connection with things beyond and bigger than us is an important part of living well.
In terms of resilience, I am aware that I have withstood a devastating shock, a full body blow. The sheer force of it can still rock me. Nick Cave, who talks about loss and trauma after the death of his son in the film One More Time With Feeling, says that when he was younger he thought pain or suffering would make him more creative. But the experience of trauma, he said was total, it takes everything and doesn’t allow for creativity. I feel within me there is familiarity with suffering, maybe the odd romantic notion about it. What I’ve felt since losing Mark bears no relation to that, though and so all of the old responses are absolutely redundant in this context. Sometimes I can feel them firing up, trying their hand, attempting to get to assert their narrative. But I’m not letting them. I need to find new ways to respond.
I’m aware that things are shifting at the moment. I am beginning to be able to stand back a little and am gaining an awareness of just what it took to absorb all the force of the shock of Mark’s death. I seem myself standing – just – as the shock waves ripped through me when the bomb went off. I feel awed at the strength it required, feel amazed that I held together and didn’t crumble into a million tiny pieces. And as I realise the effort it took to withstand that force, I realise that it’s not surprising that it’s taking me a while to move to a place where I can begin to recover and rebuild. Withstanding shock is an important part of resilience, but it’s also just a beginning.