When the levees broke and the city flooded, she was one month pregnant, newly married and learning how to be a parent to a 6-year-old stepson. Suddenly she also had to figure out how to best participate in the rebuilding of the city alongside her neighbors, and reopen the school where she worked. So many people were working nonstop to fix things, she told me. Feeding each other, making street signs, clearing debris. “There’s an expectation that we’re supposed to bounce back and that’s the American way,” she said. “And it takes the power structures off the hook.”
Or, as my friend Alison Fensterstock, who lives down the road, texted me: “‘You’re so resilient’ is just code for ‘You’re on your own, sorry.’”
People are being asked to be exceptional to get something less than exceptional in return: a basic standard of living. What is resilience anyway but an unfair exchange of energy? But who has time to consider these matters when they’re working to exhaustion?
Back up north in Washington, D.C., my friend Hannah Oliver Depp has been tireless in her efforts to keep her independent bookstore, Loyalty Bookstore, alive during the pandemic. “The average is 17-hour workdays,” she texted. Emails, inventory management and the like, but more physical labor than usual, too, as there are more requests for shipping in this new economy.
“Being a Black woman is being tenacious and resilient from birth as you fight to prevent from being crushed,” she wrote, “and now the end times are here and I am already exhausted? Being asked to dig deeper is a joke. None of this should be our jobs.”
Is the idea of resilience a scam? A con to get you to do more so others have to do less? My friend Sara Nović joked in a message that “resilience is made up by our capitalist overlords,” and she added a “lol” but I didn’t even laugh — and I don’t think I was meant to.
Even as psychologists have spent the past few decades studying and promoting “resilience theory” — which posits that you can build protective factors, particularly in children, as a way of offsetting risk factors that can hinder personal development — are we missing the bigger point? What about a focus on the risk factors themselves, the outcomes of systemic racism, poverty, and inadequate educational and social supports. Are we fixing the right problems when we are teaching the importance of resilience?