ignorance and uncertainty

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On Resilience

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The recent floods in the states of Queensland and New South Wales have affected many of us in Australia, if not directly then as a result of impacts on our families and friends. We’re no strangers to natural disasters. Droughts, floods, heat-waves, bushfires, destructive storms, and (in the northern coastal parts) cyclones are part and parcel of life even for many urban Australians. My wife and I lived in tropical Australia, far north Queensland, for two decades and went through a couple of cyclones as well as the odd drought and flood. We then moved to Canberra where we had the 2003 bushfires (our area made a lucky escape when a wind-change blew an advancing fire-front back on itself).

For many, recovery from the floods is going to be hard, slow and costly. The Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh has made Churchillian appeals to Queenslanders’ “fighting spirit” and strength of will, in an attempt to generate support and energy for the long slog ahead. Here’s a widely quoted sample from last Thursday:

“As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are. We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.”

There’s a national stereotype (with a fair-sized grain of truth) that folk in the northern and central parts of Australia are hardy and resilient because they live in more hazardous climes than the southerners do. Last Saturday the beleaguered mayor of Horsham, a small town in Victoria (a southern state) facing record floods two years after the Black Saturday bushfires bleated “… how can this be happening? We don’t live in Queensland, we live in Victoria. It’s bizarre.”

“Resilience” has featured in various pronouncements about how best to cope with the floods. Indeed, “resilience” has emerged in risk management and policy as a new buzzword, often linked with other buzzwords such as “adaptability,” “transformability,” and “sustainability.” More on the managerial buzzword aspects of “resilience” another time. My main point is that resilience has become the latest darling of those who yearn after future-proofing.

“Resilience” as a shield against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune has a history in psychology and psychiatry, prior to its ascendancy in the management or policy arenas. As in those domains, resilience has been championed as an all-weather way of coping with setbacks or unexpected change. My interest in this stems from my interest in the various ways we humans have of dealing with uncertainty.

So, what is psychological resilience? This turns out to depend partly on who’s writing about it and what parts of the human makeup they’re referring to. The Wikipedia article on this actually gives a reasonable coverage, and I recommend a look at it. The physiological version is relatively straightforward. The basic metaphor is material such as green wood or certain metals that resume their original shape after having been bent. Under stress, physiological systems such as glucocorticoids, adrenaline, and cytokines can produce rapid changes in physiology that are adaptive in the short term. This is just good old autonomic arousal, as in the fight-or-flight response. “Resilience,” then, is measured by how quickly the systems recover to their baseline levels. So the dominant metaphor is just homeostasis, the kind of feedback-driven regulatory mechanism one finds in bimetal switches and blood pressure regulation in healthy animals.

Many clinical, social or cross-cultural psychologists’ definitions rely even more on metaphor, and usually don’t refer to physiological mechanisms. Unfortunately, they don’t always agree on the metaphors and sometimes get the metaphors wrong. Some refer to the spring-back materials metaphor. Others describe it in terms of malleability, as in wrought versus cast iron. Still others refer to maintaining a steady state under duress. Here’s a fairly typical example of what passes for a definition of resilience in the research literature:

“Resilience embodies the personal qualities that enable one to thrive in the face of adversity… Beginning at a point of biopsychospiritual balance (‘‘homeostasis’’), one adapts body, mind, and spirit to current life circumstances… In time, response to this disruption is a reintegrative process, leading to one of four outcomes: (1) the disruption represents an opportunity for growth and increased resilience, whereby adaptation to the disruption leads to a new, higher level of homeostasis; (2) a return to baseline homeostasis, in an effort to just get past or beyond the disruption; (3) recovery with loss, establishing a lower level of homeostasis; or 4) a dysfunctional state in which maladaptive strategies (e.g., self-destructive behaviors) are used to cope with stressors. Resilience may thus also be viewed as measure of successful stress-coping ability.” (Connor & Davidson 2003, pp. 76-77)

In addition to getting the idea of homeostasis wrong (it isn’t a “biopsychospiritual balance,” “level” or a “baseline” state; it’s a type of regulatory process), this characterization also throws in a bunch of difficult terms. What is meant by “lower” and “higher” levels, a “dysfunctional” state or “maladaptive” strategies?

Measurement issues aside, terms such as “dysfunctional” and “maladaptive” require some heavy-duty value judgments. In fact, virtually no definition of resilience escapes the value-judgment quandary once we become prescriptive about it. When it’s applied to physical stressors such as illness or exercise, “the more resilience the merrier” seems incontestable. The more quickly and completely we bounce back from illness, the better.

But try this substitution, for instance: The more quickly and completely we bounce back from the death of a loved one, the better.

That “quickly” bit now sounds a tad insensitive, doesn’t it? Any sociopath would score higher than the rest of us on resilience on that basis. In many cultures there are implicitly or explicitly prescribed durations for grieving the loss of a loved one—Someone who has lost their spouse one day and remarries the next is likely to be viewed with askance, if not downright suspicion. In some cultures, a grieving widow or widower is expected to be genuinely out of circulation for a substantial period of time.

The “completely” part also might strike a discordant note for you. It certainly does for me (I’ve lost a few loved ones along the way). Rebounding from an illness to your old self is one thing. But rebounding from the death of a parent, offspring or partner, or a war experience for that matter, to exactly as you were before? Somehow the homeostatic metaphor starts to lose its gloss as an ideal for the well-adjusted human adaptation.

Again, many cultures have ideals and prescriptions about the changes a “normal” or “good” person is expected to undergo as a result of such experiences. Some of these prescriptions aren’t nonsensical. When I was 11 years old my family was in an auto accident in which my father died. Among many considerable changes in me resulting from this, I was confronted with my own mortality. It was the moment I realized I could have died and one day would. A grim thing to realize at that age, perhaps, but imagine what it would indicate if I hadn’t. This example gives us a clue to why authors such as Connor and Davidson feel the need to bring in slippery notions like “higher” and “lower” levels to return to following a harrowing experience. There is something important missing from a strictly homeostatic account of resilience.

One consequence of this judgmental conundrum is that the prescriptive resilience literature ends up colliding with the prescriptive bereavement literature. Bonnano, Papa, O’Neill 2001 claim the psychology of grief literature has “pathologized” resilient people for not responding with the appropriate levels or durations of grief in the face of bereavement. They point to some evidence that grief therapies are ineffective and may even cause harm. But to the bereavement psychologists an absence of grief is “denial.” So, it would seem that clinicians are stuck with two requisite judgments about resilience for any “practical” application: First, the person has encountered a sufficiently strong stressor, and second, their adaptive response is good.

Not only do we evaluate resilience differently depending on circumstance, resilience ideals also vary from one culture to another. I came from a there-are-only-winners-and-losers culture in the U.S. to Australia in the late 1970’s and quickly noticed a difference in the kinds of people being valorized over here. Many Australian heroes were not “winners” in the American sense. Instead, they often were “battlers,” people who display fortitude and perseverance in the face of long odds and setbacks. Some of these battlers would have been classed as “losers” in America.

The term goes a ways back. Here is a sample of the Oxford online Australian dictionary’s entries:

1897 Antipodean (Melbourne) 91 In the latest Colonial slang … a man who plays a determined game is called a ‘battler’.

1941 K. Tennant Battlers 182 She was a battler, Snow admitted; impudent, hardy, cool, and she could take a ‘knock-back’ as though it didn’t matter, and come up to meet the next blow.

1959 D. Lockwood Crocodiles & Other People 76 He is still what the Territory knows as a Battler. That means that he is building up a station from scratch, battling against lack of capital, isolation and distance from markets.

Note the absence of any reference to success or winning. Here is a category of valued national identity unlike practically any I encountered growing up in the U.S.

I attribute the American-Australian difference partly to the received histories of farming and settlement in the two countries. The received American history is generally one of conquest and domination in an environment much better suited to European farming practices than the Australian continent is. In contrast, even the most celebratory histories of Australian settlement are not redolent in manifest destiny. It was much more hardscrabble. The Australian environment has more extremes and far fewer affordances for settlers. The threat of catastrophe is a constant companion.

So, classical secular and/or Christian virtues such as piety, fair dealing, charity, ability and hard work provided no guarantee of success. Consequently, success and failure tended to be viewed as unreliable signals of worth. Instead, the virtues themselves became the hallmarks of heroism, almost regardless of outcome. Old-style romanticized Australian battler heroes typically are made because they strive valiantly, honestly, and fairly against overwhelming odds, even if unsuccessfully. If unsuccessful, they “cop it sweet” or “take it on the chin.” If successful, they are circumspect and charitable towards toward those who have failed because they know it could happen to them next time around.

Over the past two decades the battler began to fade a bit from view in Australia, as the culture increasingly Americanized (in my opinion, not always to its benefit). However, when disasters strike the battler archetype is hauled out of the closet, dusted off and enshrined again for a while. As global climate change takes effect and around the world we suffer increasingly violent swings in weather and environmental conditions I reckon that the battler is going to resurface as something to be. And not just in Australia.


Written by michaelsmithson

January 17, 2011 at 8:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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