Saturday, January 1, 2022

Resilience During a Pandemic

I learned little from English classes. I think my highest grade in high school was a 53. I mastered grammar and that formulaic essay enough to slip over into a passing grade, but I never understood all the metaphor and symbolism talk. At the time, I suspected it was all made up. Secretly, I still think so. I had the same reaction to formal theory discussions in art classes: the lesson that every single choice of colour and line and space is carefully pre-determined with an eye to balance and complementary structure and all the other elements I now forget. Our teacher encouraged us to watch a Georgia O'Keefe interview on television one night, which I imagine he later regretted. O'Keefe described painting by filling the canvas from the upper left corner to the lower right. She had no idea what it would look like until she was finished! Ha!! Okay, so I get that we were not a crew of burgeoning Georgia O'Keefes sitting there, in Mr. Millar's grade 9 class! Some people have a feel for design, it's in them, so they don't need to be taught how to structure words or images. The way it seems to work is that the rest of us have to try to figure out what the talented few did and copy it perhaps to become writers and artists good enough for mainstream consumption or a largely unread blog, but scarcely able to affect anyone at any depth. 

But watching my daughter take the e-learning English course this year has me further confused about what English classes are about. The thing that has me baffled is that, back in the day, we would read stories and then discuss the possible themes in the books with textural evidence. That was one of few things I could do. But this year, they've been told that every poem and short story and novel they read has the same theme: resilience. That might make sense if they were chosen for their theme, but they're the exact same books I read in school literally forty years ago: Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, Death of a Salesman... I don't remember what I came up with as the themes of each, but I'm positive they didn't all have the same theme. (And I'd argue that "resilience" is a topic, not a theme, but that could be an antiquated view). We were tasked with looking for the meaning through how the novel speaks to us, instead of proving that the pervading point of every book is encapsulated by this one word. I don't get it at all, but then I've never really understood this type of course, so I'm really not one to judge. 

Except this one word, resilience, has become so bullshitty that it no longer means anything interesting.

Even worse, it's a scapegoat. 

If we train students on resilience-speak, then it makes everything they experience is a "them" problem. They just don't have enough resilience to weather the storm, and they should be working to improve that. We teach, apparently, that they can read almost any book in the world because they're all about resilience if you look for it hard enough. Can't find it? Can't do it? Then you clearly didn't try hard enough, or you're doing it worng. 

Make no mistake, "resilience" is the new and improved version of "grit." Paul Gorski once referred to grit and growth mindset rhetoric as a "long line of ways to avoid confronting inequity--desperate attempt to locate the 'problem' in kids, not injustice." He says that telling people they just need a different mindset or more grit or resilience to do better in school denies, in the most condescending way, the reality that people who are marginalized are often models of resilience and grit.

It's not to say that having resilience isn't real or useful or possible, but that it must be acknowledge that it's not a permanent thing nor is it entirely under our own control to develop for ourselves or others by making life more and more challenging for kids. Studies on resilience conclude the same two things over and over - kids manage adverse situations better if they have a caring adult they connect with to help guide them through difficulties AND if they have some element of control over their own lives even if it's just an illusion of control. We can certainly try to provide caring adults everywhere, but the stopper there is "that they connect with." We can't make a connection happen if it's just not there. A sense of control over life or self-efficacy develops from overcoming challenges, but challenges in life help us become stronger and more capable people, more resilient people, only IF they can be solved: either escaped or resolved in some way. Challenges that present NO element of control for the participant just destroy self-esteem and motivation. So challenging students to learn to hit a ball in the net, or play a difficult song, or run the whole distance, or to cook for themselves, or to develop strategies to eat vegetables that they really hate can, if they're "solvable," all be excellent ways of creating a sense of self-efficacy. A more brutal challenge might involve escaping a war-torn area. Successful attempts develop resilience. Unsuccessful attempts will beat us down eventually. We call people 'resilient' if they can tolerate more than most, but only if we also see what they're dealing with as a difficult challenge. If their troubles look easily solved to us, but they continue to struggle within then we might call them a 'doormat.' Funny, that. 

Challenges that can't be solved just create frustration. Being trapped in a room with a set of keys that don't fit the locks doesn't create resilience. People have to be able to see a way out of a situation, the smallest window, to be motivated to keep trying. And giving them more and more keys that also don't fit in the locked door is just cruel. 

One challenge that can't be solved and offers little in the way of control is this pandemic. At first, many of us were adamant about making efforts towards eradicating the virus, but we were surrounded by too many who ignored the necessary measures. They found their own solutions in protesting science, and hunkered down with that path. Now, we're just waiting for an escape to come. It's no longer within our control to stop it; it's way beyond that now. Of course we should all wear N95 masks an avoid being in rooms full of people, like classrooms. But most of us will get it, and then it's just a crap shoot which ones of us are disabled by it or get a fatal dose. We can be incredibly resilient for much of our lives, but then get completely worn down by something out of the blue. And the pandemic is wearing everyone down. I knew it wouldn't be a sprint, but it's a much longer marathon than we prepared for. (I originally expected July 2020 to be the end-date - far longer than those around me were estimating at the time!!)

Dani Blum recently wrote about "worry burnout" during a pandemic, but by her definition - avoiding news, feeling numb, tired, hopeless, and angry - I'm totally fine except for a bit more rage than usual. I prefer Alok Kanojia's explanation: Burnout happens when people are trying to do their best work but barriers are in their way. We can cope with difficult work, but not with busy-work, work that doesn't make sense to us, or work that we're not suited for. With pandemic burnout, the task of vaccinating and wearing masks is something we can do; they're a challenge we can rise to, absolutely. And we can feel very successful in our ability to vaccinate, keep masks on, and build a Corsi-Rosenthal box. But the barrier to our success here is ineffective governmental policy and horrible communication. Leaders aren't being clear or transparent about their reasoning to craft policies that seem to actively work against reducing case numbers, like no longer counting cases in schools. It's all the more frustrating to watch other countries do it so much better than we're doing it (like Japan and New Zealand). And then it's easy to give up. 

We definitely need more mental health supports, but we also should be living in a society that takes care of the basic needs of every person. School is now a primary cause of stress, whether students are in the building or learning from home. It shouldn't be like that. But stress over grades isn't about grades; it's about survival. Kids and parents need to know that failing math doesn't mean they're unemployable and will end up living at home the rest of their lives, dependent on their parents. Low grades shouldn't correlate with potential homelessness or lack of mental health access; they should just indicate how well they demonstrate ability against a standard. A focus on resilience makes it all your fault, not the fault of the system that has us all stressed out from lack of jobs that ensure employee safety and pay well enough to be able to afford any kind of housing without having a university degree, which leads kids and parents to pull their hair out fighting for 90s in every class while also hoping to avoid hospitalization or a permanent disability from a brutally contagious virus. 

It all feels like too much, because it is! We could pull our bootstraps up to our necks and still be struggling with it all. Anti-capitalist system changes need to get some traction to dig us out of this pit of despair. If you haven't seen Don't Look Up yet, it's a fun romp through the inanity that passes for leadership in our elites. Their focus is the economy, code for profits, not people.

ETA: this article (h/t Lorne) exploring the physical reason people can die from despondency:

An inescapable threat can stop dopamine production, leading to hopelessness, and start a "spiral of disengagement." Most people emerge after getting new information or developing an adaptation, but some don't. Demoralization, the thought that we won't be able to experience pleasure in the future, "can arise from a struggle to cope with a stress or event, which can include a medical illness or entrapment in a predicament that you can't control." The psychological pressures of an ongoing threat can impact physical survival. It's not that we need illusions of hope to keep us going, but we need to believe there IS a way out despite all of our attempts. Even if it will take time to be rescued, the calvary is coming. Hang on, and keep fighting for solutions!! And vote out Ford in June, for the love of God!

ETA: A post of my daughter's final assignment, on a book of their choice (Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves), but they somehow still have to show the theme of resilience in it. In this final piece, she questions the course's celebration of resilience in the lives of the Indigenous in the novel, ending with, "They didn't need to be stronger; they needed to be safe."


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

There are different strategies for dealing with problems. Lock a person in a room with a bunch of keys, none of which fit the door. What is a resilient strategy? Perhaps trying to look like you've given up and sitting next to the door to conserve energy. That way someone might come into the room now that your will is "broken"---at which point you can maybe beat them up and escape. If that isn't possible, at least kill or maim one of your captors before they kill you.

Is fighting to change the system a resilience strategy even if you know that you will never personally win by doing so?

Is protecting your children a strategy even if it means your own personal downfall? If so, you are protecting the information encoded in your DNA. What if you protect your ideas even if that means your own downfall? Then you are protecting the information encoded in your culture.
Does this mean martyrdom is a resilience strategy?

No matter what, we all die.

Perhaps admitting that "sometimes no matter what you do, you are still f*ck*d" is in itself a form of resistance against the Capitalist idea that all anyone needs is hard work to get ahead---and the unspoken corollary that anyone who isn't successful deserves what they have because they didn't work hard enough.

Maybe that's the lesson everyone needs to learn from this pandemic "Sometimes no matter what you do---you're still f*ck*d." I wonder if maybe we'd be a little more patient, a little more compassionate, and, a little more humble, if our culture would just tell us that more than just once in a while.

Marie Snyder said...

RE: "Perhaps admitting that "sometimes no matter what you do, you are still f*ck*d" is in itself a form of resistance against the Capitalist idea that all anyone needs is hard work to get ahead---and the unspoken corollary that anyone who isn't successful deserves what they have because they didn't work hard enough."

Absolutely. Thank you for your words.