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?

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