The Philosophy of Resilience

“For the mind adapts and converts everything that impedes its activities into something that advances its purpose, and a hindrance to its action becomes an aid, and an obstacle on its path helps it on its way.” -Marcus Aurelius

Resilience is one of those qualities we tend to deeply admire in people. It’s the badge of honor we award to the person who was knocked down and got back up again. We could argue that human history itself is the story of resilience—correcting ourselves one failure after another, and coming back even stronger. Tragedy after tragedy, oppressive law after oppressive law, the human spirit thrives ever-still. Stories like that of the African-American female NASA mathematicians in the early 60s depicted in Hidden Figures, and that of the POW World War II survivor, Louis Zamperini, depicted in Unbroken compel us to look inside ourselves and ask what could possibly be holding us back. As impressed as we are by such people, we’re far from certain that we could exhibit the same stamina in similar circumstances. Over time we’ve convinced ourselves that some individuals just have certain qualities, and others just don’t.

While we all have distinct personalities and predispositions, here’s a bit of not-so-breaking news: Qualities can be cultivated. Crass as it may sound, characteristics can be manufactured. What this means is that contrary to the popular belief that resilience is a quality of some but not of others, it can be bred. Well of course it can be! Resilience is bred through trauma! Obvy! But does it have to be?

While our experiences should absolutely be expected to shape and strengthen us, traumatic experiences shouldn’t be a prerequisite for overcoming a future trial. It should only be an advantage. This brings us to the crux of this piece: Resilience can (and should) be intentionally cultivated. Let's walk through how. 

Merriam-Webster defines resilience as "the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.” What an uncomfortably accurate way to describe life itself—a series of compressive stresses. Of course, that’s not all life is, but it’s inevitably part of it. What’s particularly important to note in this definition of resilience is the use of the word capability. Resilience is the capability to recover, reminding us yet again that capabilities can be trained. And so, how do we train it? Preparation

Our beloved Stoic philosopher Seneca tells us that “everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even being withstood if they have been trained for in advance.” Trained for in advance. This means we begin training our resilience capability long-before there’s something that calls for the quality. We face the uncomfortable question of "What could go wrong?" and inoculate ourselves accordingly. We breed resilience by building up the necessary stores in our lives that will make it easier to bounce back when we need to.

What sets Stoicism apart from other philosophies is its inherent, painstaking practicality. So let’s get practical. What does building resilience via preparation look like? It looks like pursuing wisdom and learning, knowing that the retention of a particular idea could one day mean the difference between sanity and a mental breakdown. It means we save, save, and save again, knowing that our employment isn’t guaranteed. We invest in relationships with people who may one day be the exact champions we need to get us through. As entrepreneur and online educator Tai Lopez calls it, we build forgiveness into our lives. We build it into our bodies through exercise and nutrition, increasing our likelihoods of recovering from sickness, injury, or periods of inactivity. Building resilience means putting systems in place that are strong enough to withstand life’s blows. We commit to routines that yield results that don’t break when everything else around us does. We have backup plans. We do the opposite of putting all of our eggs in one basket. We convert resentment into energy, and we know what we’re fighting for.

"Foolish are those who...have no aim to which they can direct every impulse and, indeed, every thought." -Marcus Aurelius

This brings us to the second step of resilience-breeding—one that calls for more introspection. Renowned author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whose book I’ve mentioned on this blog a mere countless times) talks about something called psychic entropy: the diminished mental state we enter when forces seem to be working against our goals. We find ourselves in cycles of pushing and pulling, chasing and tugging, wondering if what we’re fighting for is worth the payoff—if the turmoil will one day lead to triumph. There are times in which life feels like nothing but a battle to live, bringing us to a point where we have to ask ourselves if the pain of fighting is worth what we’re fighting for. To answer this requires that we actually be fighting for something.

And this, too, is how we breed resilience before an event breeds it for us—we identify what it is we’re fighting for. You can’t come back from something when you have nothing you want to go back to. We have to identify that thing, that idea, that goal that’s so bewilderingly meaningful to us that no left-field occurrence has a real chance at thwarting it. In the wake of frustrating news, what’s that thing that still motivates you? What compels you to keep giving your best when the world is handing you its worst? It doesn’t have to be lofty, but it does have to exist. Be it vague or concrete, this is what turns resilience from the exception in the individual to the rule—the standard by which we operate.

“On pain: If it is unbearable, it carries us off; if it persists, it can be endured.” -Marcus Aurelius

Remember this and repeat it often: whatever fails is fuel. In a world where “failure” has become akin to a curse word, it’s essential that we adopt and embrace an accurate understanding of this word. To fail merely means that you didn’t attain your intended result. Failures are isolated events, not permanent titles. A person isn’t a failure; a person pursues things that fail sometimes. But as we’ve iterated, whatever fails is fuel. This means that when something doesn’t go your way, you leverage the experience in a way that helps make sure the next thing does. We ask ourselves questions like, Exactly what went wrong? As far as I can reasonably know, could I have done anything differently that would've changed the outcome? We analyze and we mobilize. We infuse energy precisely where life infused its entropy. 

Resilience wasn’t meant to be the peak state of the human being, but the default one. In other words, resilience is a matter of living in a constant state of knowing that life will happen, and believing that you will rise above it. It’s knowing when to say to yourself, I didn’t come this far to give up. Commitment to such a philosophy enables our thriving.

“…if it comes up against [anything], it converts it into material for itself, much as with a fire when it masters the things which fall into it. These would have extinguished a little lamp, but a blazing fire appropriates in an instant all that is heaped on to it, and devours it, making use of this very material to leap ever higher.” -Marcus Aurelius

In the wake of all things, may we leap ever higher.