Resilience is Futile

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a little bit of resilience. We all have to do it, to some extent, from time to time, and to practice resilience in the face of adversity is often an honourable and worthwhile thing. So when the right wing press bemoans a “snowflake generation” they perhaps strike a chord that we all can recognise, if not sympathise with: merely giving up (or not trying) is not the currently accepted recipe for success. But it’s a chord that often underlies the “getting a good thrashing never did me any harm” refrain and, in those cases, it’s wrong.

It’s wrong because you simply do not help people cope with adversity by beating resistance out of them or manufacturing further adversity as a learning experience! So let me be clear, a little resilience – a little Stoicism even – can do a lot of good. But it is not the only way of dealing with life’s lows and, in many cases, is probably an unhelpful long-term coping strategy. Sadly, too often it’s the only strategy schools and universities are teaching young people.

Much of the current fad for resilience training at schools is underpinned, or at the least justified, by its philosophical roots in Stoicism.  Put simply, Stoicism holds that you cannot control external circumstances. It’s fate; events have causes, which themselves were predetermined by prior causes, and their consequences are inevitable. However, you can control your perspective on them including your emotional reaction (at least, according to the Stoics you can). So you can choose to be affected or unaffected by events. Grant rejection? Was always bound to happen, que sera. Paper accepted? Saturn was aligned with Mercury in Virgo… get over yourself! And while your despondency at missing out on promotion was already written in every line of your palm, you can still choose to fret or chill about it. In short, if you don’t like it, suck it up!

There is little wrong and a lot right with grounding classroom and mental well-being practice in philosophy. But too often the deeper philosophy, its message and implications, are distorted into a handy sound bite or inspirational quote. Modern resilience training programmes at schools employ “practical philosophies” that shy away from an overt “stiff upper lip” or “grin and bear it” approach. But they amount to the same thing: pupils and students need to learn to operate a set of rules-of-thumb for putting up and shutting up with stress, anxiety, or depression.

Pragmatism aside, classical philosophies (Stoicism among them) sought to explain the world, not to provide advice on how to live it. In that respect, an undoubted problem with many resilience initiatives is that they encourage a “keep on going” attitude as a method that ignores more profound implications of the philosophy and so disregard its failings. And its failings are important. For a start, it takes quite a lot of effort and energy to contain extreme emotions and, if you’re doing it a lot, it can be utterly debilitating. This can become particularly pronounced for young people who mask serious underlying mental health problems. For instance, there has been a huge rise in pupils educated outside or refusing the mainstream sector in the past ten years in the UK, with SEN and those with diagnosed psychological disorders massively over-represented in the data on school refusers.

A more fatal flaw in Stoicism is that it implies irrelevance of the will and action, and denies that agency is meaningful. If everything that happens was always bound to happen, why bother with anything at all? (You not bothering was bound to happen, so at best live a marvellously hedonistic life and/or then wallow in your own inevitable demise.) The fundamental problem with Stoicism – at least most of the classical brands – it that it relies on and perhaps even values passivity.

What message, then, does the proliferation of resilience programmes in our schools and colleges send to young people? In the absence of other programmes or taught strategies for coping it sends the clear message that the world is hostile and something to be “coped with” by remaining silent, or tolerating adversity and injustice rather than fighting against it. Or, perhaps, it sends the message that strong emotions and emotional reactions are handled effectively by tempering or denying them. And, of course, sometimes they are. But sometimes, too, they cannot be and resilience does not work and its failings are revealed in the extraordinary rise in young people’s destructive (or self-destructive) behaviour.

Sometimes resilience is not enough. And at other times, perhaps, the best strategy is to stop being passive and challenge the system that sustains adversity. That, of course, is revolutionary talk and, as the Greeks will tell you, battling against fate rarely ends well. But action, rather than passivity, is sometimes the only remaining option if fate (the system, the status quo) is dealing you a bad hand. And I detect we have a generation emerging that is increasingly ready to act.

2 Comments

  1. It’s interesting the way you’ve interpreted stoic philosophy in a way others wouldn’t necessarily, it shows,I believe, a great understanding for human kind and the ultimate flaws with “grinning and bearing it” that works only for the few, perhaps less understanding and more self absorbed people.

  2. Nice work. Systemic approaches to mental health have always called for an interpersonal understanding of distress addressing wellbeing at every level personal social and political. We must not understand distress purely as an interpersonal response and forget the associations of poverty, trauma and migration to mental health. Use your votes wisely.

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