Resilience Is The Wrong Word

Glendale, California
Monday, October 7, 2019

Resilience Is The Wrong Word

The word, resilienceall the rage in the mental health world—is actually incorrect, erroneous, misleading, even dangerous.

According to the Oxford dictionary, resilience means:

a. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, and;

b. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape, elasticity, as in:

Nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience.

We human beings are anything but nylon.

To compare psychophysiological reactions to trauma to a type of plastic is, well, insulting.

We just don’t spring back into shape.

We change, morph, alter.

Catherine Malabou, a contemporary French philosopher, coined the phrase plasticity to refer to how we humans change in response to trauma. Her metaphor suffers from the same inhumane connotation. But she’s more on track.


Because Malabou acknowledges that people are transformed by trauma.

They do not snap back like rubber bands.

Eschewing words that render us machines, like resilience, plasticity, or even self-regulation—one of my favorite psychoanalytic-words-to-hate—I view trauma as an inevitable life event that shapes or sculpts us.

Newly chiseled, our personalities, even our physiologies, move forward forever altered. Life may be viewed as an unfolding process of comedies and tragedies which transform us.

Trauma strengthens us in some ways; it weakens us in others. 

Nietzsche was not entirely correct when he wrote:

That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

He was partially correct. Yes, we emerge stronger in many ways but more vulnerable in others.

My two bouts with endocarditis in the past ten years, each requiring open heart surgery to replace infected aortic valves, left me more appreciative of life. It also left me with a greater sense of vulnerability, of danger. I feel prepared for a sudden, negative change at any turn.

This post extends the last two I wrote concerning a medical problem, involving cancer, in my dear friend, Jill. You can find those posts here:


Since those last posts, Jill has begun a five-day, focused radiation treatment to remove metastatic tumors from her brain. It seems miraculous. According to the radiation oncologist, those lesions will be gone by the end of this week.
Yesterday, the final pathology report revealed an unusual type of lung cancer. Various treatment options exist. She and her husband meet with a medical oncologist today to review treatment options.
Meanwhile, and continuing my focus on emotional trauma, the pain of the situation is nearly unbearable. As I noted, the uncertainty plaguing Jill and other involved parties has been traumatic in and of itself. A diagnosis now exists, but the forward path is murky.
Perhaps a treatment plan will give encouragement for a rapid and complete cure; perhaps it will be dire.
Jill, her family, friends, and I, await with lingering anxiety and sadness.
This specific scary situation demonstrates the foolishness of that commonly used, if absurd word, resilience.
No one will be snapping back from this.
Worse case, Jill and the other involved parties will endure months or years of painful treatments, re-evaluations, further interventions, and so on. No one, not even top oncologists, can predict the future course at this point.
Because we all swim around in an interpersonal soup, the shock-wave of diagnosis and pending treatment affects tens if not hundreds of people. Jill, her husband, and their children are understandably pained and pre-occupied. The situation radiates outward, affecting family, friends, colleagues, even strangers who hear the story.
Best case, the cancer is completely curable. She goes into remission, future scans are clear, and she can expect to live a long and fulfilling life.
How might the transformation caused by this specific type of trauma manifest?
Hopefully, we will all learn to appreciate each day with renewed gratitude.
We’ll notice the beautiful.
We’ll drink in the good moments, the joy, the laughter.
We’ve already experienced greater appreciation of love—its meaning, depth, power.
We will realize, with renewed humility, how little we actually understand about what we call reality. Most of the world remains mysterious, perhaps eliciting mystical and spiritual yearnings.
At the same time, and on another level, we’ve had our denial of death—the central theme of Ernest Becker’s book by the same title—ripped away. Jill and her husband’s face their vulnerability with an exposed rawness. And, all of us in the surrounding circle of love experience a painful diminishment in that tranquil avoidance of how vulnerable we are.
No room exists to imagine the world returning to where it was before.
In closing then, forget about resilience as a useful word for understanding emotional trauma.
Think, instead, of how our life experiences, positive and negative, shape, sculpt, and mature us. They give us wisdom.
Meanwhile, let’s all, including you readers, keep our attention on the moment.
Let’s notice the small kindnesses, the beauty, of our paths as they unfold before us.
Becker, E. (1973). Denial of death. New York: Free Press.
Malabou, C. (2012). The new wounded: from neurosis to brain damage. Trans. S. Miller. New York: Fordham University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2003). Twilight of the idols. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin. (Original work published in 1889).

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