The following post is written by Charlie Coil. This is part one of a series entitled, “On Resilience.” Charlie’s words are wise, needed, and thoughtful.
(Charlie is completing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Arkansas. He is also a husband, father, and minister.)
Part I: Fragile Clay Jars: Hardly Resilient
There’s a funny story that I think every preacher in the country has told by now. Back when Shug Jordan was the head football coach at Auburn University in Alabama, it’s said that he asked one of his former linebackers, Mike Kollin, to help him with recruiting.
When Mike asked what kind of player Coach Jordan was looking for, as the story goes, Coach said: “Well Mike, you know the kinda guy where you knock ‘em down, and he just stays down?” “Yeah,” Mike said, “We don’t want him, do we, Coach?”
“Naw, that’s right,” Coach said. “Then there’s that fellow, you knock him down and he gets up, you knock him down again and he stays down
.” Mike replied, “We don’t want him either do we Coach?” Coach said, “No Mike, we don’t want him either.”
“But then, you know that feller, you knock ‘em down, and he gets up. Knock him down, he gets up again. Knock him down, he gets up again. Knock him down, he just keeps getting’ up again and you just keep knockin’ him down again?” Mike said, “That’s the guy we want isn’t it, coach?” The coach answered, “Naw, that’s not our guy either.”
“Mike,” Coach Jordan said, “I want you to go out and find me the guy who’s knocking everybody down. That’s the guy we want.”
This bit of humor ironically exposes a couple of ways of looking at life and hard times, even two worldviews you might say, that epitomize our culture. “In this life sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail.” You’ve heard that old adage. And of course, everybody wants to be the hammer. Nobody wants to be a nail. It’s also similar to the irony of the clay pot analogy. It’s just not in our human nature to embrace being breakable, yet scripture says that’s exactly what we are and that we should embrace our “breakableness” in order to allow God’s power to work in our lives. But, it seems we all prefer to be the person who gets to break everybody else’s pot, to knock everybody else down.
We’re even willing to accept the impermanence of this state of dominance. In surveys, Olympic athletes say they would actually accept death in exchange for a few years of complete dominance in their chosen sport. Apply this to any position of power and dominance in society and you see its addictive power. Even if you find the guy (or the gal) who knocks everybody down all the time, (read “dominate successfully in whatever field of endeavor they choose”) they can only be successful for a few years in their prime, then he retires like Lawrence Taylor and gets arrested for trying to have his way with a child. Or she dies of pneumonia and prescription drugs like the beautiful actress Brittany Murphy at age 33 with her last film hauntingly titled Abandoned.
So, when you really pause and think about it, the knock-everybody-down type, is unrealistic and not a viable alternative for most of us mortals. Despite this obvious truth, the “positive mental attitude” industry makes millions every year trying to convince you that you’re the exception; you really can turn yourself into the hammer or the unbreakable jar. On the other hand, another outlook says to just embrace your breakableness and the hopelessness and complete absurdity of your life situation. Just have courage-for-courage-sake in the face of the hopeless absurdity of life. But, the face-your-death-but–never-say-die type is an uninviting, austere, bleak Death of a Salesman or Waiting for Godot way of existence. It certainly does not offer any real hope or true fulfillment for people in this life. Persistence is one thing but persistence without sublime purpose seems pathological.
So, let’s cut to the chase on these issues up front. Let’s say we’ve got all this figured out. We’re Christian after all. We don’t want to knock everybody down. We don’t want to just persevere just because it seems like the right or the only authentic thing to do. Even the existentialist notion of being authentically courageous in the face of absurdity and death is not appealing and seems a little absurd to us. We have coherent, defensible reasons for believing that there’s more to life. We even say that we believe with Paul the Apostle that “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And, we say above all that we believe there is some substance to our hope—a happy ending.
But, then the next question for believers goes beyond just this statement of belief. The gap between verse 7 and verse 8 seems like a gaping hole of Job-like proportions. Let’s say we allow that we are horribly fragile clay jars, after all. We admit that we are so broken we look like lost causes, we feel both humpty and dumpty, beyond hope even for all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. Naturally then, we ask ourselves HOW in the world can we ever find hope if the only two widely-advertised alternatives are a) refuse to admit to yourself that you’re breakable; or b) release yourself from hoping for anything; imagine there’s no heaven!
You see, by popular, secular standards, asking ‘how to hope’ is either unnecessary or unreasonable. Yet we Christians persist in asking how do we find a reason to keep getting up after being knocked down again and again, after being broken like fragile clay pots. Or if you’re one of those rare ones (like Samson or Solomon or the Beatles or Bill Gates) who gets to go around knocking everybody else down, whether you’re a business pro or a pro boxer, how do you find a reason to keep going when there’s no one left to knock down? How do you find a way to keep going?
The word for this desired outlook on life or capacity or spirit is resilience. Oxford English Dictionary says that resilience is “a quality of being able to recover quickly or easily from, or resist being affected by, a misfortune, shock, illness, etc.; robustness; adaptability.” A group of psychology researchers have suggested that resilience can best be explained by focusing on three possible capacities of resilience:
1. good outcomes regardless of high-risk status;
2. constant competence under stress, and
3. recovery from trauma.[i] I would say that all of these are needed by all of us at one time or another during our lives.
Three researchers have recently studied another facet of resilience—whether it’s best understood as a •trait, a dynamic developmental •process, an •outcome, or all of the above.[ii] Again, I would suggest all of the above are valid for the Christian’s walk of faith. We could also distinguish types of resilience: •physical, •psychological[iii] (or mental and emotional) as well as •spiritual resilience which is often subsumed under the psychological in our secular culture. But, even if you have definitive answers to these multiple choice questions you still haven’t identified how some people come about this trait, process or outcome while others struggle. What’s more, though we began with a quote from Rabbi Paul (circa 50’s A.D) we haven’t yet considered his radical answer (coming soon).
Now, that we’ve more or less laid out the issue of resilience, next time we’ll look at the human predicament that makes resilience so necessary and therefore so much discussed outside of any religious or even spiritual context.
[i] A. S. Masten, K. M. Best, and N. Garmezy, “Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity,” Development and Psychopathology, 2, (1990): 425-444.
[ii] John W. Reich, Alex J. Zautra, and John S. Hall, Handbook of Adult Resilience, The Guilford Press 2010
[iii] See this helpful online brochure, “The Road to Resilience” from the American Psychological Association’s website http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx