Resilience and its precursors

So far as I have heard, everyone likes “resilience.” Especially in March. Only the good basketball teams wind up in their conference finals, and half of those good teams lose that game. And then they go on to play in the great March Madness tournament and the commentators wonder how those teams—the ones that lost in the conference finals—will react to the loss. Will their lose their momentum? Will they lose their confidence? Will they “rise to the occasion?” Will they learn, to their surprise, how unfazed they can be as they regroup and learn from their mistakes.?

Obviously, something bad is the precursor of “resilience.” If something bad had not happened, no one would want you to “bounce” [1] re-, “back” from it. So, not to get all smiley-face about it, the simple fact is that if bad things don’t happen to you then you don’t acquire the much-lauded trait of resilience.

I’m going to talk about marriages in a little while. I want you to know that as I continue just a little further about basketball teams. So your team lost. That’s a bad thing, of course, but it is not a simple thing. Accounts of why you lost will be varied and some will be more valuable than others. There is no point in saying that any of these accounts is wrong, but it is just a fact that they cannot all be made the focus. Some part of the experience—the defeat—needs to be the center of our team’s reflection and learning. Something, to say the same thing another way, must be salient.

We get “salient” from the same source as “resilient,” just as you would have guessed. Something is salient if it “jumps out” at you. That’s the “jump” of salire showing up again. Of this welter of possibilities, I would like to offer two for today. One is, “I did something wrong.” It could be because you were not able to do the right thing or it may be that you just screwed up. The other is, “We did something wrong.”

resile-5I want to argue that the second interpretation is better. Improving something about the game of one player is a good thing, of course, but improving something about the team is a great deal better. And it sometimes happens, in the world created and sustained by sports analysts, that that loss in the conference finals was a blessing in disguise. “There is no way,” the analyst might say, “that this team wins the NCAA tournament without having suffered that crucial loss and learning how to put it behind them.”

And it might be true. We don’t know. Of course, they don’t know either. But buried in the particularities of winning and losing is a powerful truth. Who you became as a team is a result of the way you treated that setback and it may be the best thing that ever happened to that team or to that program. Where it is the challenge to the team that is salient, the learning that can result can be life-changing.


And with “life-changing,” I shift over from sports to marriage and I want to start with a story. My very much loved wife, Marilyn, died of cancer in 2003. And now you think that I am going to consider how I “bounced back” from that tragedy. But if I was going to do that, I would have largely wasted everything I have written to this point, so that is not what I am going to do. I am going to talk about how Marilyn and I bounced back from the initial diagnosis and how we flourished as a couple during the years from then to her death.

“We” bounced back. That’s really the point. It wasn’t that I did or that she did. We did. That’s why I started with team metaphors.

But, of course, we had had practice and the one example of practice I would like to tell you about is our experience of driving together in England, Scotland, and Wales. It was really difficult and in that process, we learned something about each other and about ourselves as a couple.[2]

This is what British roundabouts look like. They take them very seriously there. And resile-1Marilyn was not at her all-forgiving best. She had been in an automobile accident just a few days before we left; she was still badly bruised and was sitting “on the wrong side of the car,” as one does in the UK, and watching cars driving in unfamiliar patterns and heading straight at her door. It was a tough first day. She proposed that we turn the car in and find another way of getting around. I agreed that I would, should it come to that, but I asked if we could try something else first.

We went to a book store/coffee shop. I bought the most detailed map of the UK I had ever seen. It showed the precise configuration of every roundabout in the country [3]. Then I went to a few people in the coffee shop and did my helpless American thing and asked them to explain the roundabouts to me. Each and every person I asked took a paper napkin from the dispenser on the table and drew the same diagram and then explained it using very nearly the same words.

Marilyn and I came to call it “doing the roundabouts.” Here’s what we did. I drove (from the wrong side of the car) and she managed this huge atlas of roadways. As we approached a roundabout, she would tell me which arm of the complex we were coming in on, which one we would be going out on, and how many we would pass up in doing that. Then she would count them off as I drove—not this one, not this one, the next one, OK, this one. It gave me all the information I needed to negotiate the roundabouts. Providing that information was obviously useful to the process, but, less obviously, it gave Marilyn a job that did not involve looking out the window. It was beautiful. Had it been in France, it would have been a pas de deux.

resile-6When, some years later, when she was diagnosed with cancer, we had the roundabout process to fall back on. We called our negotiation of the diagnostic marathon, “doing the roundabouts,” and we knew exactly what that meant. It meant an intimate and joint understanding of what we were doing and the full engagement of each of us in some necessary part of the task. And, best of all, we did it on purpose and we knew we were doing it on purpose.

I don’t want to imply that we “learned resilience” by driving together in the UK. In fact, each of us had learned resilience to some extent before we met and we learned to resile together (I had to do it just once—the verb, you know) in many other ways before and after the UK. But the roundabout experience served as a common referent and when we referred to it, we were referring to all the things we had learned to manage together and, mostly, to master together.

What you can learn

Obviously, I am not pitching traveling together in foreign lands. I am not pitching doing things that are new and possibly dangerous and that could cause you to fail—either a failure of nerve or a failure to succeed. I am pitching the process by which either partner takes a failure as the occasion for strengthening the team that will have the responsibility for managing the consequences of the failure. “His failure;” or “her failure.” Who cares?

Every couple knows that a failure by either can become the occasion for a civil war. How many formerly happy couples have failed to survive the death of their child? But over and beyond the obvious truth that he must find a way to process a tragedy in his life and she must find a way to process a tragedy in her life, it is powerfully true that they must find a way to process a tragedy that affects them both. If life is a dance, a common tragedy is an opportunity for a pas de deux.

Every defeat that improves the capacity of the couple to respond is a victory. Like the teamShoulda. Woulda. Coulda. that lost in the conference finals and met in the locker room to look each other in the eye and vow to trust each other more, the couple that treats a defeat like that has laid the foundation for a successful season. Or a successful program. Or a tradition of winning. Years down the road, some new player will start blaming another for “having lost us the game.” And an older player—ANY older player in that program—will take him aside and say, “That’s not how we do it here.”

And if the coach says, “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety,”[4] he says it quietly in his office or at home to his English teacher wife.

[1] The root of the word “resilience” is salire, a Latin verb meaning to jump or leap. There is actually a transitive English verb “to resile,” meaning roughly the same thing, so sportscasters might always hope that Duke, let’s say, will resile from its defeat by North Carolina.
[2] A highway patrolman from a department that is self-insured, ran into her. He made an illegal U-turn and collided with her right on the driver’s door. He and she wound up on adjacent beds at the hospital (both hurt, neither seriously) and before either could move, the police department mounted a charm offensive, hoping that Marilyn would not sue them for their obvious and inexcusable misdeeds.
[3] Except London, probably, and even I knew better than to drive in London.
[4] Henry IV, Part I, Act 2, Scene 3

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Communication, Living My Life, Love and Marriage, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Resilience and its precursors

  1. ericinlo says:

    “unphased”? ???

    As Joan might say, “Oh, Dale….”

    eric =========


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