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Resilience is toughness. It’s the ability to spring back after a blow, to have the capacity to return to a healthy state after going through hard times. It’s elasticity.
But, above all, it’s about breathing space.
Picture a mattress. In your mind’s eye, push your fist into the middle of that mattress, as hard as you can. Feel it give under your hand. Feel the foam squish or the springs creak. If you keep pushing, you can hold it like that. It’s only after you let go that the mattress is able to return to its own shape.
In an ecological sense, resilience is the capacity for an environment to return to a state that, while it might not be identical to its beginning state, is still capable of supporting the life that originally depended on it. Let a field go to seed, and the birds, deer, and insects will return. Let a warehouse in the middle of the city begin to crumble, and the moss and vines will creep in through the cracks while pigeons nest in the rafters. Over time, more of the original flora and fauna will return — so long as they aren’t extinct.
But even the earth needs breathing space. It isn’t possible to take and take, and expect the environment to continue to be able to give. Taking anything, whether it’s food, water, wood, or stone, requires some kind of reciprocal relationship, and part of that reciprocal relationship is knowing when to stop and rest. The environment isn’t the only thing that needs that pause, though — the constant push to produce is no more natural or healthy for people than it is for the land or water. Profit is not a natural motive.
Ecological resilience looks like reciprocity, and feels like rest.
There’s another aspect to resilience at play here. To wit, have you ever experienced choice fatigue?
It’s a funny thing. You’d think that having more options is objectively better, but, unfortunately, there’s a point where our brains become overwhelmed. What seems like it should be freedom instead becomes stifling. Choices become harder to make. We may even end up seeking out a similar scenario that offers fewer choices instead, or not choosing anything at all. If we do make a choice, we’re less satisfied with it. There’s only so much we can process, even when it’s something “good.”
The reason I bring this up is that it doesn’t just apply to jelly, or cars, or any other consumer good. It applies to everything. Reading the news is a nightmare in part because it’s almost never good news, but also because there’s an overwhelming number of situations that demand our attention. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and succumb to fatigue. When it comes to taking action effectively, that overwhelmed, mentally exhausted feeling is a surefire way to tank it.
If you read the comment section of pretty much any news story posted on social media, there will always be at least one person who shows up just to go, “Well, what about [some other horrific situation happening right now]?” The quick, sensible response here is that it’s possible to care about more than one thing at a time. It’s possible to be upset about more than one thing at a time.
I just also think it’s only possible for one person to really act on a limited number of things at a time.
Resilience is flexibility. It’s the ability to take a blow and recover quickly. One of the biggest impediments to this is a lack of breathing room — when you’re hit, over and over, by tragedy after tragedy, there is no space to bounce back. It’s something that political figures count on: Throw too many bad headlines and worse decisions at the public, they won’t be able to fight back indefinitely. Monopolize the breathing room, and you can keep people from being able to act. The healing never begins if there is no space between fresh hell.
The EPA granted “emergency” approvals for dumping bee-killing pesticides. Oil and gas pipelines leak with disturbing frequency. Environmental protections are eroded more day by day. Then there’s the border wall. How do you focus? What do you act on? How do you act?
The key to developing and maintaining resilience in the face of this fatigue is to prioritize. Choose what is the most important to you (or what needs you the most), whether it’s on a local, national, or global level, and pour your energy into it. It’s okay to feel anger and frustration when things are brought to our attention, but not everything needs immediate and direct action on an individual level. It’s okay to read a news story or see a problem somewhere, find out who is already acting on it, offer whatever support we can offer without overextending ourselves, and release that anger with gratitude to the people who are already working on it. Chances are, they know what they need to do.
Outrage is not finite, but energy is (particularly for those of us whose energy is limited by disabilities). Don’t let politics and the news grind you down, because that’s exactly what the end goal is. Find your breathing space, and support those who are not yet in their breathing space. Bounce back, then react. Maintain your resilience.