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  • Writer's picturekelly keena

what is resilience?

Words matter. I think this is where my love of language lies, in the fact that words are imbued with meaning. Each with its own individual identity but grouped with other words in short or long strings artfully placed together, well, that is just magic. Words become sentences become paragraphs become stories. And the core of our communication. And utterly taken for granted.

The same can be said for people. Individual people matter. Each has meaning and complex strings of stories that create their context and very specific lens on the world. Through my lens of education, of teaching individuals that make up a group and studying how they learn, we spend time and energy creating shared experiences. Where individuals each from a complex ecosystem of thoughts, families, homes, communities, faiths, biases….where each can share an experience to expand their thinking. To think critically. To be curious. To be resilient in the world and confident. And safe.

In 2014, Rebecca Solnit wrote a perspectives piece on Bill Moyer’s website titled, “The Feminist Battle After the Isla Vista Massacre” in which she artfully crafted this idea:

Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let alone change it.

Words matter. When we….serve….them….with….intention.

And often, words are used so often that we become flippant and careless with their use. Overly used words lose their meaning unless we slow…..down…..and…..remember….who…..they…..are.


Sometimes, individuals and/or communities have such rich relationships with a word that it begins to radiate with meaning. When we experience the pure definition of a word it unpacks like Mary Poppins’ endless carpet bag. Or Hermione's purse. If we don’t experience something directly, it is the stories of those who experience it that create meaning of a word. And empathy. Here’s an example. Solnit explores the terms mansplaining, rape culture, domestic violence. Feminism. Whoa. No doubt we all have a reaction to this word. Do we all experience it? No. See the battle over the #YesAllWomen for a dose of that battle.

And stories of those living that experience matter. They fill a word with meaning. By their stories.

Resilience. People with chronic+terminal disease have an instantaneous relationship with the word resilience. It is swollen with meaning and intimacy. Right now, we are all forming a relationship with illness and its fallout. But, what is resilience? What does it actually mean?

It’s a word I am hearing more and more. I worry that like other big, densely packed words, the risk is that we will overuse it without meaning or context or experience. This is where words go to die. When they are tossed around carelessly. Their forms hallow out and we forget the richness that they carry. We must be intentional with where this word (and others) is placed.

Resilience is the ability to function during a crisis, the return to normal functioning after a decline, the ability to show growth in the face of great challenges. Resilience is the ability to be a competent individual from the inside of illness. Or struggle.

In my most recent hospitalization with the flu (my fourth in 18 months), I started thinking about healing. The long journey from being sick, to being well, knowing that there’s another sick in the future. But not knowing when. Again. And again. And again. Chronic illness = chronic healing.

If you have the time, I have an analogy for what this feels like.

Imagine. You’re walking with a stack of books of all different sizes and textures. They are perfectly balanced and you feel confident carrying them. Your pace is quick and your feet are sure. You’re in a field - a large vast beautiful pasture of long grasses and the sun is shining. You stumble on a rock, you recover your balance, you pause to check your stack of books, and you carry on. And then.

You drop into a hole unseen because of a combination of the book stack and the long grasses and sun in your face and the distraction of thriving. The books scatter. You scatter. Landing in a hole that smells of fresh earthen soil. It’s dark. You have to orient yourself - which way is up? How badly are you hurt? Where's all your stuff? For a while, all you can do is lay there. Unable to do anything but be in the hole.

Feeling air begin to move through the lungs again, the next two weeks are spent looking around and figuring out the map of the hole that looks amazingly like a hospital room on the respiratory unit. Finding the strength to begin moving around, beginning to reorganize the things that are there with you. A slow, steady, exhausting climb back out. Sometimes slipping back to the bottom, which starts to feel very comfortable in the damp, cool smell of the earth. It is difficult to resist the urge to just stay at the bottom of the hole forever. But you don’t.

While some work on the causes of the fall, I'm curious about what brings us back to the surface.

Emerging at the top of the hole, you work back into the steady stream of the world that’s been happening all along. Without you. While you were gone things went on around you. You begin by searching for and carefully picking up all of the items to re-find the balance of it all, standing, taking some slow and steady steps. Slow and steady at first. Eventually, maybe days, weeks, or even months later, you find your balance and confident stride.

Getting washed into the current of the world’s activity carefully watching for the next hole. Until you grow so confident that you carry on with your walk and carrying of things. In the back of your mind, knowing it’s going to happen again. It’s unavoidable. It’s chronic - repetitive - ongoing - not ending.

The journey from the bottom of the pit back to the surface and into the current of the world over and over and over again is resilience. The BIG question is, why do we continue to emerge from the hole, pick up our shit, and start again? WHAT is the motivation to leave the hole knowing how much work healing is.

What is it that drives us to climb back up every single time, knowing there’s another episode coming? Just not knowing when. Why don’t I just stay at the bottom of the hole where I know I will be again someday unknown. And again.

And, let me be clear. Not all of us climb out each time. Many/all of us succumb to crippling depression like a weight dragging us down to the bottom. And some of us die. There’s no return from that.

There are studies that help us define resilience. Within this body of literature, my dissertation study revealed children’s time in nature as a determinant of resilience. When we published that study, along with two other studies that revealed similar results, we defined resilience as:

“Balancing the study of stress and anxiety, a large literature explores resilience in children, defined as their capacity to overcome challenging stressors such as poverty or illness to become competent, confident and caring individuals (Benard, 2004). Resilience can take different forms (Masten and Obradovic, 2008). It includes resistance, when someone continues to function well during a crisis, recovery of normal functioning after an initial decline, and transformation when someone shows personal growth through positive adaptations to challenges.” (Chawla, Keena, Pevec, and Stanley, 2014).

And now, I want to apply that line of inquiry to chronic illness. And adults. And the resilience of communities. The bullhorn in the back of my mind to return to unpacking the word resilience came before the global pandemic. But, it applies to what will be a necessary trait for all of us, not just those of us affected by chronic+terminal diseases. And it is through the stories of people with stacks of books walking through fields filled with holes that we can excavate meaning. Address it. Find the things that help us DO it. To be confident, competent, and caring even in the face of stress, anxiety, poverty, and illness. To function well during a crisis. To return to normal functioning after a decline. To adapt even in struggle.

This is an unprecedented time for many reasons. Among those reasons is that a socially-wired-global-population is experiencing something together. With awareness. The same thing. The same challenges. Whoa.

(Another community excavating the term resilience are those working in climate catastrophe. Another global experience, but with more denial. More on that to come in the next post.)

I do know this.

Resilience cannot be muscled into being. Guns and protests and shouting at nurses and blocking ambulance bays will never be determinants of resilience. We cannot show a virus a gun and expect our economies to open. (And, if I may, Shame. On. You.) Resilience IS a recipe of hope, and hustle, and acceptance, and determination. But that does not live in a gun or in the irrational screams at nurses and police.

So, it is my hope to explore resilience factors in the CF community. So that we may learn both why and how we climb out of the never-ending holes. And maybe it will help all of us uncover how we climb out of our current situation.

#resilience #chronichealing #chronicleofhealing

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