I’ve been thinking about resilience today. I am hardly the first to comment on what seems, on the surface, to be an incongruity at the heart of life in the twenty-first century West. In global and historical terms, we are in uncharted and unprecedented waters when it comes to material comfort, life expectancy, medical care, connection options via technology, discretionary time for entertainment, recreation, and much more besides. At the same time, we are the most heavily diagnosed and medicated, depressed, chronically anxious population on the planet. There are exceptions, of course. There always are. But, again, in very general terms, the preceding describes a phenomenon that many of us recognize. Things have, in some ways, never been better and yet we’ve never been less able to cope.
I hear this from educators and those who work with youth and young adults all the time. Kids just don’t seem to be as resilient as they once might have been. Some link it to the rise of the smartphone and the anxiety that performing our lives online in front of others breeds. Others point to lives that are too comfortable. Kids are coddled, hovered over, underestimated, not trusted, never forced to rise to challenges, etc.
Some talk about the individualism and consumerism that pervade the atmosphere. Our cultural norms and assumptions are daily socializing our kids into seeing themselves as the center of the universe—as gloriously sovereign bundles of rights and freedoms and identities that must be validated and honoured by the world around them. And then they struggle when they come to the unpleasant realization that reality doesn’t bend to their every whim.
Still others point to the world that previous generations are bequeathing to them—a world of climate change and political instability and collapsing economies and few options for stable employment, etc. Who wouldn’t be anxious in such a world?! There’s probably some truth to each of these. How much truth is, of course, up for debate.
My interest in these questions is not, of course, purely academic. I have high school kids. This is the world in which they live and move and have their being. This is the language they use. These are the default concepts, categories, and assumptions through which they narrate their own experiences and those of their friends. I want my kids and those around them to both recognize the incongruity described above and, more importantly, to take steps to move beyond it. I want them to be resilient people, able to move through the ups and downs of life with confidence, strength, and conviction. I want them to face adversity squarely.
I don’t want them to encounter obstacles and instinctively default to the ways in which they have been mistreated or victimized (by their social context or their biology or whatever) or to reflexively assume that the only answer to their problems is a diagnosis and a prescription. I want them to be open to the possibility that God is using hard circumstances to grow them in faith, hope, and love.
This is not a popular thing to say out loud, I know. I can imagine being accused of being insensitive or downplaying the ways in which some people really are victims or minimizing the benefits of clinical diagnoses, medications, etc. I of course do think that people are victims of structures and systems beyond their control, and I of course do think that diagnoses and prescriptions can be helpful. I just don’t think that they tell nearly enough of the story.
It’s an almost endless source of fascination for me to simply observe how Jesus treated people in the New Testament. Forget, for a moment, all the divinity and miracles and big salvation stuff that we import into Jesus’ every word and deed on the pages of the gospels. What does he assume about people? How does he interact with them? What assumptions does he validate or call into question? What does Jesus think about human beings? It seems to me that among Jesus’ many frustrating liberating tendencies in the gospels is to quite consistently think and demand more of us than we do of ourselves. I could pick from any number of interactions, but this morning I’m thinking of two in particular.
First, there’s Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John 8. We know the story, right? She’s been caught in adultery, the law requires that she be stoned, there’s all kinds of very religious men eager to get on with doing “what the bible says,” etc. And Jesus famously says, “Whoever is without sin can cast the first stone,” thus sending the very religious men home feeling rather grumpy and not nearly as righteous as they had hoped. And then Jesus says to the woman, “Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I. Go, leave your life of sin.”
We very much like the first part of Jesus’ response. The second? Perhaps not so much. We love that Jesus didn’t condemn her, but what business did he have to tell her to stop sinning. “Sin” is such a harsh word, after all. And didn’t Jesus realize that this woman was a victim of hegemonic structures of hetero-patriarchy? That she had no real agency in the ancient world? That what the very religious men called “adultery” was quite likely a survival strategy in a world where women’s bodies were often the only capital they had to work with?
And yet. Jesus insists on treating this woman as more than a victim. And in so doing demands that she think more highly of herself and of the options available to her. I have no condemnation for you. Now go, stop sinning.
And then there’s the story in John 5 of the paralyzed man by the pool of Bethesda. The pool is thought to have healing properties but the man struggles to haul himself to the water. For thirty-eight years, he has been unable to walk. His affliction has reduced him to begging by the gate. Jesus comes across him and hears about this man’s condition. We would expect pity, compassion from Jesus. And this is what we get. Sort of. But only after Jesus asks the man what might seem a rather strange question. Do you want to get well?
The question strikes us insensitive at best, downright offensive at worst. How can you ask such a thing, Jesus? Thirty-eight years of this?! Of course the guy wants to be well! There’s probably nothing he wants more! But Jesus knows human beings very well. Better than we know ourselves. He knows that we are prone to cherishing and nursing our victimhood, to defining ourselves by our afflictions, to avoiding roads that demand more of us than we’re willing to offer.
The man doesn’t really answer Jesus’ question. He doesn’t say if he wants to get well or not, he just says there’s no one to help him to the pool. Perhaps Jesus sighed at this point. Or smiled. But either way, he responds as we hoped he might: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” The physical healing is what catches our attention for obvious reasons. The man wasn’t going to get up on his own, after all, no matter how much he wanted to walk! But I wonder if there weren’t two miracles that day. The man walked away from his paralysis, but perhaps he also walked away from a life where he wasn’t sure he even wanted to be well or knew how to do it.
Stand up! Stop sinning! These words and others like them are words that I think we still need to hear—that we always need to hear. And not just the much-maligned millennial generation. All of us need to hear that to be human is to be more than the biological or sociological hand that we have been dealt. No matter what our context, no matter what our affliction, no matter what narrative we might prefer to make sense of our myriad anxieties and uncertainties and fears, Jesus stubbornly insists upon paying us the compliment of telling us to take a step, to make a choice, to take responsibility for ourselves, to stand up.
Are we less resilient or just more self aware of our humanity while at the same time lacking the spiritual language to live whole lives in spite of ourselves?
Well, I will have to choose the probably unsurprising option of, “both.” 🙂
What do you think? I’d welcome a bit of elaboration on the back end of your comment.
Ha! Both is often a good answer. I’ll elaborate…
I think to some extent it’s important to bear in mind that though many things do indeed change across culture and circumstance, there is something transcendent about the human condition. My default would be to say that we haven’t actually evolved (or devolved) but certainly our perspective on ourselves has changed. We often equate a change in perspective with a change in being, but those aren’t necessarily the same thing (though certainly a change in perspective can lead to a change in being).
At the same time I would say that religious language, particularly Christian language, is helpful for understanding those parts of the human condition which are universal across time and place. Concepts like sin, evil, salvation, grace, hope and peace. In public discourse we’ve excused those terms, and replaced them with secular and scientific terms, which in a way is helpful, but if we take a historical perspective to be human is to be frail, to be physical (secular) and to be spiritual. If we don’t give ourselves spiritual terms to express our frailty, our human condition, it becomes more difficult to live with it. That’s all. It’s not a change in being, so much as a change in perspective. Though likely both are taking place, as you observe.
I think that’s what I’m getting at… hope it makes sense.
Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful exploration of these things.
I think you’re absolutely right in this, Kevin. This is what I was gesturing toward in different language in the post—our perspective toward ourselves is changing, has changed, will continue to change.
I like your addition that this is no doubt deeply connected to the fact that we have largely forfeited some of the important theological categories and concepts within which to locate our experience is a good and necessary one.
Thanks Ryan. I figured we’d agree 🙂
It is kind of weird, it’s like we’re still very uncomfortable with weakness and fragility (lack of resilience)… yet we’re all to aware of our own. Glad Jesus comes along and tells us to Stand Up! and Stop Sinning!
I’m also glad God doesn’t leave us alone in the frail state… now if only there was a holiday season where we could celebrate God’s presence in the midst of our weakness… 😉
Ha! If only…
Right on, Ryan!
“Do you want to get well?”… I had never really thought about that question before. Thank you for your post Ryan as I too am reflecting on some of these things in light of raising my 3 girls. I fear very much I am raising them with little resilience. We want so badly to give “good gifts to our children” but I think I fail them often. There is lots for me to think about here.
I fear the same, Tanya. I think it is an occupational hazard of parenting in the twenty-first century. So much in our culture works against the cultivation of resilience.