Resilience Is Overrated

In the non-linear trajectory of life, change is vital

Photo: Sven Krobot/EyeEm/Getty Images

In recent years, resilience — or “grit” — has emerged as the ultimate self-help virtue. As John Patrick Leary recently wrote in Teen Vogue, the “resilience industry acknowledges that we all go through rough patches, but it insists that our setbacks will only make us stronger,” which clearly appeals in these unpredictable (and deeply unequal) times. But in reality, how we respond to big changes—rough patches and achieving dreams, alike—does not follow a straight path or timeline. The idea that life is a series of stages that we pass through in a certain order is worse than misleading — it’s detrimental to our wellbeing.

So argues Bruce Feiler in his latest book, Life Is In the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. To make the most of our circumstances, we have to embrace the unpredictability of change and let go of expectations around when transitional moments can or should happen. More than ever, transitions—or what Feiler calls ‘lifequakes’—are a significant part of life.

Forge recently talked to Feiler about challenging our attachment to resilience and linear narratives, and how the stories we tell ourselves can define our outcomes.

The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’re critical of the idea of “bouncing back” from disappointment. But isn’t that what happens when we get through a tough situation? What’s wrong with this outlook?

The shapes of our lives are much more complicated than we think. And I want to liberate people from the expectation of an exclusively linear shape.

I’m very grumpy about the word “resilience.” It’s actually a physics term and it comes from a spring. The spring [is pulled] out and the spring shows resilience when it goes back [into place].

But that isn’t how life works. We might go back to where we were [pre-disruption], but just as often we go sideways or four ways, or in a new direction entirely.

Something that’s really important to me is to accept the fact that as long as
we’re going to have to go through these lifequakes more frequently, as long as we’re all going through a transition now together, we have to view these not as periods that we just grit and grind our way through, but as vital periods that are essential to life. That can just as often, and do just as frequently, lead to renewal and growth.

How does the way we frame our experiences shape our lives?

Life is a story that you tell yourself. How you tell that story matters. Are you a victim? Are you a hero? Are you somebody defined by what you do or make or create in the world? Is the story defined by your relationships? Maybe work isn’t that important to you. Maybe you are a parent. Maybe you want to be a good friend. Is your story defined by what you give back? It’s not just that your story matters. It’s what you value.

The story that you tell yourself about who you are is always running in the background in your mind. But that story is not just part of you: That story is you.

How does the expectation of a linear life affect the stories we tell ourselves?

Not that long ago, a century ago, [tradition dictated that a majority of us] live where our parents wanted us to live, believe what our parents wanted us to believe, often marry who our parents wanted us to marry, and do what our parents wanted us to do. So we are coming out of a century that has seen enormous liberation. Whether it’s sexual identity, marriage, work, where you live, leaving the job that you’re in. But there is a massive downside, which is that there’s so much choice that we often get overwhelmed. It’s like we get writer’s block writing the story of our own lives.

We are haunted by the ghost of linearity, and we have been led to believe that a certain set of things will happen in a certain order. We’re going to have a low-level job to mid-level job to high-level job to retirement. We’re going to date, and then we’re going to get married, and then we’re going to have children, and then we’re going to be empty nesters.

And then we die?

And then we’re going to hold hands and die in bed in our late 80s.

So, our expectations are still linear, but our lives are not linear. And that gap is a huge burden.

What kind of impact has Covid-19 had on our collective relationship to the prescribed narrative? That disruption seems unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes.

I feel strongly that this collective lifequake is about to become a very personal lifequake.

It is already becoming something that we’re all going through individually. So am I in the relationship I want it to be in? Do I want to believe what I still believe? Do I want to move? Am I doing the job that I want? Am I going to still have a job? Do I want to change careers? That is where this story is going to go as each of us responds to the lifequake that we’re in by asking those questions.

The lifequake can be voluntary or involuntary, but the life transition must be voluntary. You have to opt in, lean in. You have to make the decision to go through the process. Each of us has to choose where we want to be when we come out of this.

It sounds like you’re saying we should treat disruptions as opportunities to take advantage of. We can embrace these moments, see where they take us, and evolve. Why does such an inviting prospect often feel so daunting, in practice?

In transitions, there are periods of shedding habits, there are periods of mourning, there are periods of saying goodbye to the old you. But there are also periods of astonishing creativity where people experiment. They sing, they tap-dance, they pick up garden shears. One of the things that we all saw on social media when the pandemic first hit was that people turned to baking. Somehow the act of creativity allows us to create our fresh selves.

Writing, in particular, is incredibly powerful. When the pandemic first hit, I told my teenagers — who were 14 at the time, and boy, they did not want to do this — “we’re going to get a journal and write three days a week.” I think that my kids have actually gotten through [the pandemic] relatively well and, though they would deny this until their dying day, I think that the writing played a role in it.

People journal, they write thank-you notes, they reach out to loved ones. And it helps. It helps us express ourselves, when it often seems like an inexpressible moment. Life does not have inherent meaning. We have to give it meaning. The way we do that is to tell a story about it.

Writer (currently) in Budapest, bylines @TheAtlantic, @Undarkmag, @VICE, @voxdotcom & more; follow on Twitter @hope_reese; hopereese.com

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