Reclaiming Resilience: Why our times are calling for a bigger and bolder vision of human resilience

We are no longer comfortable with keeping calm and carrying on, no matter how many hits come our way. Focusing on resilience as survival means the concept of resilience cannot evolve. But a volcano of deep, ancient human dignity is wanting to be heard: it's time to reclaim resilience.

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Emily Johnsson
Emily Johnsson
Nurturing changemakers for a whole world.

This article was first published on the platform Thrive Global on the 1st October 2021.

There isn’t a single sector of society that isn’t talking about RESILIENCE right now, yet there are more and more people rejecting it.

Why?

A meme went round the internet the other week.

It said:

“I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I am exhausted by strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit. Or for how many”

Tons of people cheered it and chimed in.“Yes! I don’t want to be resilient either!”, the chorus went.

Reading it, I realised that RESILIENCE is yet another concept that has been hijacked and misused in ways that make people feel unseen, unheard and disempowered.

It made me want to start a conversation about what it really means to be resilient beyond ‘being prepared’, ‘grit’, and ‘keep calm and carry on’ – all of which keep many of us in unhealthy relationships (e.g. co-dependency, fierce independence), fear (e.g always anticipating threat) and distracts us from looking at and dismantling what people have no choice but to develop resilience towards (e.g. surviving systemic oppression).

So the other week I asked a question on my social media: “What do you associate with the word RESILIENCE”?

Many wonderful, thoughtful, thought-provoking and varied responses poured in.

As an old social science researcher, I love collecting community responses, working with research, listening to the public debate on a topic, and then synthesising it into an offering.

The RECLAIMING RESILIENCE PROJECT has been one of these opportunities.

Diving into the world of resilience has been fascinating, enlightening and full of hope.

Here’s some of what I have learned:

The NATURE of the conversation on RESILIENCE is changing.

The pre-2021 conversations and definitions on resilience, mostly all have one thing in common: SURVIVAL.

This includes ‘being prepared’ – so that we can survive.

They have also included trauma responses such as adaptivity – often described as resilience but which simultaneously keeps us in toxic relational and systemic situations, precisely because of our ‘resilience’ to these environments.

That resilience has been discussed in the context of survival is perhaps unsurprising.

When we soberly look at the world we have created, it’s one where most of the population is living in a constant state of crisis of varying degree and variety.

Even in wealthy and peaceful nations, people are stressed out, burnt out, overwhelmed by the pressure of “doing it all and having it all” and looking unscathed and slim and perfect in the process – living disconnected from their health, happiness and wellbeing as a result.

When we focus on resilience as survival, and praising people for their ‘resilience-as-survivalcapacity‘, the concept of resilience cannot evolve. And we remain, perhaps unconsciously, stuck in a vision for humanity that is still about surviving.

Because when we focus on developing resilience towards a threat, we often distract ourselves from looking at the threat itself and how we can intervene or remove the threat, including systems and structures that are unhealthy and not working for everyone. (For example a working environment that leaves everyone exhausted, or discriminates against some people in the team).

It’s like when we tell girls and women to not wear a low-cut top in order to ‘become resilient’ towards sexual assault, instead of making sure that boys are raised to see girls and women as equals, rather than objects.

Or when when we talk about becoming resilient towards effects of the climate emergency, instead of radically and swiftly changing the system that creates it.

People are rising up and speaking out about how our outdated view of resilience is keeping us in the status quo.

The definition of resilience as broadly meaning survival combined with “gold plating grit” isn’t sitting right anymore.

We are no longer comfortable with keeping calm and carrying on, no matter how many hits come our way.

There is also a culture and language around resilience as survival that often wants to fast-forward the process by which we may navigate a crisis to the s/hero’s celebration at the end.

The messy middle of ‘bouncing back’ is often dark and non-linear and not neatly wrapped up in a one-size-fits all step-by-step process, making it uncertain and terrifying all at the same time.

This means that we have created a way of life where uncomfortable – but essential – emotions are pushed down, numbed out and ignored in the name of ‘being strong’, ‘moving on’ and ‘bouncing back’.

We close the door, lock it and throw away the key.

In the name of resilience.

There is a rising resentment towards all of this.

And there is a rising resentment amongst people and communities who have no option but to ‘become resilient’ due to the societal systems and structures in place that segregate, exclude, reject, oppress.

Communities where resilience has become synonymous with defiance, of survival against all the odds, against what the system wants.

This is what people in my community shared:

“Resilience is not something I would have chosen”

“I have strong reservations about this word [resilience]. I feel it is over-used and all too often lacking in recognition of underlying context. A kind of whitewash of trauma and a pat on the head in place of deep listening and purposeful intervention. So often, the “resilient” person is the one who has the most to lose by not performing the survival strategy masquerading as resilience, the consequences of which could be devastating”

“Resilience in today’s world often teaches suppression as a guise for “strength”. It’s supposed to mean being more like a rubber band. Snapping back. Which is also a lie. After trauma we are changed. We don’t snap back. It’s a false expectation that makes a lot of people feel worse.”

The energy around this resentment is not self-victimisation.

No, instead there is something quite the opposite, something deep and powerful and disruptive.

A volcano of deep, ancient human dignity wanting to be heard.

When I asked my community for their associations with resilience, they broadly fell into 3 categories.

1. Associations with survival

2. Resentment towards the ‘old’ connotations with resilience

3. A new, empowering definition of resilience

When I looked at both the responses that fell into the category of ‘a new definition’ and recent research on human resilience, what emerged was something beautiful and moving: namely a deep sense of WORTHINESS.

And this deep sense of worthiness is tired of surviving.

Tired of adapting to conditions, systems and structures and mindsets and behaviours that shouldn’t be there in the first place.It wants a bigger and bolder vision for humanity. For ALL of humanity.And our planet.

It wants a vision for THRIVING.

Because when we thrive we are PREPARED.

When we thrive, truly thrive, we don’t do that on the expense on any other people or the planet.

When we thrive, we are agile, and we have tenacity.

The deep sense of worthiness enables us to work with any crisis from the vision of THRIVING rather than SURVIVING.

That means that HOW we navigate any crisis or threat, is going to look different to when our vision is one of SURVIVAL.

It’s radically shifting the conversation from adapting and responding, to looking at creating a different way of life where more of us are thriving.

A deep sense of self-worth and a vision for thriving means that we will [examples of community responses: ]

Advocate for ourselves

Hold ourselves and be held

Feel deeply through emotional pain

Know our needs and how to meet them and ask for them to be met

Parent our inner child

Be self-compassionate

Hold space for all of ourselves

Trust ourselves

Care for ourselves on every level: emotional, spiritual, physical, mental (‘spiritual’ here in the broadest form including things like our connection to Nature)

A sense of “I can do this, and it matters because I matter”

To be in the present moment

Follow our body’s lead over where or how we think we should be and slowing down

Intentional trauma recovery, learning to regulate our nervous system

The understanding that a rupture is not the end of the world and it can be repaired

Getting things wrong is ok because you know you are still lovable

Ability to navigate uncomfortable conversations where we may need to look at parts of our selves that bring up feelings of guilt or shame

Listening

Acceptance

Reflection

Being curious

Trying new things

Willing to share things that are not perfect

Taking time out to just be

The willingness to grow

Honesty with ourselves even when it’s not pretty

Questioning where we are versus where we’d like to be and taking action

Patience

Forgiveness

A knowing all can be healed

Being connected to a purpose bigger than ourselves

Boundaries

Interdependence

Living in harmony with the lands

The list goes on.

When I read this list, it makes me want to breathe a sigh of relief.

To me, this sounds like the very essence of being human, living with an open heartOur whole hearts.

The essence of being a truly resilient human, able, agile and ready to weather the storms of life.

The essence of navigating life as a human being in a way that isn’t simply about surviving, but that holds the bigger vision of thriving.

Every step of the way.

A vision of thriving humans.

A thriving Earth.

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About Emily & White Supremacy

Emily is a space holder and self-leadership coach to changemakers. She has over 20 years experience in the field of human development, learning and growth, and leads the coaching and consultancy company Wish Tree since 2011. Her work centres around wholeness – whole humans, whole communities, whole organisations, whole ecosystems. A whole world. Her changemakership is therefore dedicated to clearing distortions and fragmentations that relate to our perceptions of separation.

Emily has been exposed to and ‘sat with’ systemic issues around race, racism, privilege and injustice her whole life. She was born in Camden, London, in the late 1970s to a Swedish immigrant single mum and spent her first formative years in a highly culturally and ethnically diverse setting. As a baby, Emily and her mum lived in a bedsit in a shared house with a Black British family. Her first memory of Father Christmas was of him as a Bangladeshi man. Emily’s mum worked with refugee families and in Children’s Homes in inner city London, and since she had no access to child care opportunities, Emily joined her at work. For a while, Emily had an older Black British foster sister called Debbie. She was very often the only white child in the community of children of which she was a part.

Emily moved to Sweden with her mum as a child and as a teenager became involved with, and led, antiracism youth work in her local town through her school and council-initiated networks in the 1990s.

Her mum, who was active in the peace-and- environmental movement and who had been involved as an ally in the civil rights movement in the US on her travels there, introduced her to Black feminist and activist writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Audre Lord, and actively taught her about white privilege, white supremacy and the truth of colonialism. She was also taught about the importance of learning from Indigenous wisdom keepers in order to heal and evolve as humanity, and to (in those days) stop climate change.

In contrast, on her father’s side, Emily is of British Colonial descent. Emily’s grandmother was born in Zimbabwe to Scottish sheep-farmers. Her grandfather came from a poor English background but won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study law. As many young British men of his time who sought “adventure, a good job and travel”, Emily’s grandfather joined the colonial service in the final days of the British Empire, and served in several African countries as a high-ranking colonial officer. He spoke Zulu and Emily’s father spoke Swazi and Swahili before being sent to Britain as a child to attend boarding school, thousands of miles away from his parents.

Although Emily did not grow up with her father or his family, she eventually came to know them and have a relationship with them, which involved taking responsibility for understanding and healing her own familial and ancestral relationship to colonialism and white supremacy.

In this process, she came to see, feel and understand first hand and close up, the deeper psychological workings of the system of white supremacy, the colonial mind and its intimate links with narcissism, perfectionism, patriarchy and extractive economies and behaviours.

Between 2003-2015, Emily worked as a learning researcher and Access, Diversity and Inclusion enabler in the Arts & Cultural Sector, deeply rooted in the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Convention. She worked across the U.K and Scandinavia contributing to a number of large scale change projects, self-evaluation initiatives, conferences and trainings such as “Access for All”, “Inspiring Learning for All”, “Belonging – the Voices of London’s Refugees”, “The West Indian Front Room”, “Kultur och Fritid för Alla”, “Vidgat Deltagande”, “In this curriculum I don’t exist”, “In between two worlds – London teenagers’ ideas about Black History, Belonging and being British” to name a few. She worked with a wide range of marginalised communities as well as with leaders and directors holding white privilege, facilitating necessary and brave conversations challenging the status quo.

Emily has worked across many cultures and languages around the world from Sri Lanka to South Africa, Costa Rica and India to Romania and Denmark, continuously reflecting on and challenging white saviour tendencies. In this process has come to observe how white supremacy and racism works differently in different countries depending on context and history.

In 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Emily became a loud voice in the Wellness industry by calling in leaders bypassing white supremacy through ‘love and light’ rhetoric, exceptionalism, colourblindness and virtue signalling. She closed down several online coaching circles because white participants were unwilling to dive deeper into their own internalised white supremacy, and rendered the spaces not only additionally unsafe, but traumatising for BIPOC clients. Her platform and large facebook community for coaches and wellbeing facilitators centred BIWOC-led anti-racism conversations as a response.

Emily is a skilled and fiercely loving coach and space-holder with many years experience of creating safe spaces for accountability, healing, integration and growth to take place.

She is dedicated to her own ongoing learning, healing and unlearning of covert white supremacy. Examples of this are continuous learning from a wide range of anti-racism educators, authors and activists from around the world.

This bio has not been written with the intention of centring Emily in the context of Me & White Supremacy, but to transparently share about her background, values, skills and experience in order for you to make a conscious decision to choose her as a space-holder, or not.

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