Part IV: We Are Really Perplexed
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”[i]Ever heard that saying? What about this one? “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” The great Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides (1135-1204) is perhaps best known in pop culture for these aphorisms. They remind us that there are truths that we may find difficult and perplexing yet true nonetheless.
For example, we know instinctively that you can’t really give people resilience. And we also know that you can’t teach people how to be resilient without teaching them certain practices and skills. But, even teaching a man to fish doesn’t guarantee the man will not starve. No wonder Maimonides words above were penned in a lengthy tract called A Guide to the Perplexed (perhaps the greatest philosophic statement of Judaism ever published) which attempts to defend God and religion in the name of reason. But, using reason as your sole guide often seems to make things more perplexing rather than less.
Many philosophers of religion through the years have, like Maimonides, have tried to defend God and religion in the name of reason. Still, we are perplexed after we hear all the “reasons”. Maybe this also applies to discovering resilience in life. It seems so mysterious and unreasonable why some people are able to exhibit great resilience while others struggle to survive physically and emotionally? Sometimes Christians even try to short cut through this issue by claiming that some one-off conversion event in which the Holy Spirit comes into a person’s heart, miraculously instills resilience inside a person’s being so that growth is automatic and inevitable. This view seems specious on its face. Why all the instruction in the Bible about growth if the Holy Spirit just does it all miraculously and instantaneously?
I think with all these questions we’ve made the case that this is a really perplexing topic. Of course, really perplexing issues are the ‘stock and trade’ of philosophy. As a college professor of Philosophy, I am supposed to be about helping students make sense of or at least make distinctions about perplexing issues. So, here’s an attempt at a brief definition for resilience. I describe the notion of human resilience as a virtue or an identifiable character trait that can be developed over time. Using psychological terminology I define resilience as “flexible self-control, sufficient for survival with reasoned post-stress reappraisal”.
I’m sure I cobbled together this definition from someone else’s book or article but I can’t site a specific source at the moment. Note that I allow for using reason in the process of being resilient though I allow that reason cannot explain all that I see going when I observe resilience in another person. But, this definition at least allows for a realistic recognition of both human vulnerability (without resorting to Stoicism requiring impervious, invulnerability) and some kind of innate ability or strength capacity or responsivity as psychologists call it. Christians use the Latin words imago dei (image of God) to describe this innate or in-born “will to live” or “life spark”. So humans are both delicate and rugged, breakable yet reparable. Resilience is to possess both these features without surrendering to what one philosopher calls “malignant integral breakdown.”[ii]
So, using Aristotle’s “golden mean” idea, we might say that resilience is the virtue that we aim for which lies somewhere in between an implausible invulnerability and an unhealthy system collapse. But, our Christianity aims far higher than Aristotelian virtue ethics. Our hope is found not in mastery but in a Master, not toward means and measurements but toward a Messiah! And the clear reason for why we’re able to find this resilience is because of the image of God that remains within us despite our fallen nature. Scripture is clear: God never abandons! But, I’m getting a little ahead of Paul in our text. There’s still plenty to be perplexed about, plenty to give us pain, plenty that we will never explain while we struggle to “see through a glass darkly.” Next time we look at the “why” and “how” of resilience.
[i] The origin of this quotation has been variously misattributed as an old English proverb or an ancient Indian proverb or most often as a Chinese proverb from either Laozi (Lao Tzu), Confucius or Guan Zhong. However, some lines from Maimonides’ famous ‘eight degrees of benevolence’ (or charity) comes about as close as any other source to approximating the idea of thoughtful benevolence and the enduring value of education. See Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, Springfield, NJ: Behrman House 1972:134-137.
[ii] George W. Harris, Dignity and vulnerability: strength and quality of character, University of California Press 1997, p. 10-14.