Transition, Resilience, and Fireweed
We paused on the trail—tired, hot, and momentarily liberated from the weight of our heavy packs—and I sat down on a scorched fallen log, grateful for the respite, in what only three years earlier had been a verdant, old growth Montana forest. Now, the charred remains of spruce, lodgepole pine, and fir were all that I could see. Burned sentinels of formerly majestic trees rose ahead and above us, and those no longer standing littered the forest floor as if some great force had arbitrarily tossed them and let them lay where they fell. I found myself lamenting the loss of what I knew had once been a fecund, flourishing forest ecosystem. I was in the Scapegoat Wilderness area of Montana with dear friends from graduate school and this was not what I’d had in mind. I’d had visions of escaping my native southern heat by hiking in cool, pristine sub-alpine forests, and I now found myself in a forest radically changed by fire: ravaged and permanently damaged. Or was it? Was I seeing the whole picture?
We live in a complex world that is always changing, and the response of any system—whether a family, a business, an economy, a church, or an ecosystem—to the shocks and disturbances of change depends on a number of factors. But what are they? And how do we understand change (and transition) and resilience in response to them? In this brief essay I hope to consider change, transition, resilience, and imagination, and the possible implications of the relationships between them, especially for those of us in the church and related institutional settings. I will also suggest, albeit briefly, some ways of thinking theologically about these connections in the service of generating conversation.
The Resilience of Ecosystems
The Native Americans understood that fire, though dangerous and potentially destructive, could also be life-giving. They often intentionally set fires for agricultural and hunting purposes. Following suit, the US Forest Service understands that fire is nature’s way of restoring and replenishing the forest. Indeed, they often let fires burn themselves out, unless the blazes threaten homes, businesses, or other human-related areas.1
Our hiking trip began at a trail-head in an area burned by a large and ferocious fire several years earlier. The hot sun, unimpeded by green branches, shone full force on our single-file procession of backpackers, and served as a compelling and present reminder of the effects of the fire. It was, by most outward appearances, a scene of utter desolation. It was hard to reconcile the forest, wildflowers, lovely meadows and waterfalls we left behind with the pyrrhic terrain through which we now walked.
After several miles of hiking on this hot day, we stopped for water and rest, still solidly ensconced in the burn. As we sat quietly, I began to look around. Amidst the desolation, I began to see that life was everywhere, pushing upward in infinite detail, where, previously, my vision had been limited only to what was most obvious to the eye. I caught a glimpse of a mule deer, drawn to the open terrain by the lush, waist-high vegetation now growing in the sunlight. Fireweed, a lovely plant with lavender and pink flowers that grows in just such burned-over land, was everywhere around us. How had I missed it?
As I listened, and watched, and finally began to pay attention, I heard a low, buzzing hum and then began to see that the fireweed had attracted hundreds of hummingbirds, dodging and darting, feeding on the fireweed nectar, along with bees and other insects. Birds, marmots, chipmunks, and wildlife of all kinds seemed suddenly visible where before I had seen only blackened trees and desolation. Life seemed to be flourishing where once I had seen only death and destruction. And I had not seen it in part because I had not paid attention to the moment and to the larger, more complex picture it contained. Focusing only on the blackened trees straight ahead and above me, I failed to see the profusion of life flourishing right beneath my feet. Seeds of lodgepole pines needed only the intense heat of the fire to release their inner Chi—the deepest, essential life breath and energy—but I had both literally and metaphorically not seen the emerging new forest for the desolate, burned trees. Indeed, flourishing was everywhere, in stark contrast to the all too evident reminders of what had been, on the surface, a very challenging time for this forest ecosystem.
How are embodied creatures vulnerable to the inevitable losses we encounter, such that what some ecologists call “adaptable change” is made less likely? What can we learn from the resilience of the ecosystems of our world, both literal and metaphorical, about our own resilience? Seated on that charred log on a hot Montana day, I was moved to consider the constraints upon my own finitude, and that of creation, and to place flourishing and the resilience it connotes in context.
Resilience in Family Systems Theory
In her groundbreaking text, Families that Flourish, Dorothy Becvar builds upon growing resources in family systems theory to present an alternative to the pathology-based approaches of many mental health theories.2 She is quick to remind us, however, that families come in many shapes and sizes, and any talk of resilience must take this into account: “Resilience evidences itself in unique ways relative to specific situations,” she writes, “It is not one size fits all.” It does, however, share common features. For Becvar, a system may run through all possible internal changes, no matter how many there are, without effecting a systemic, second-order change. Such systems are, according to Becvar, caught in a game without end. They cannot generate from within themselves the necessary conditions for their own change.
This second-order perspective is essential to resilience in part because of the “leap of the imagination experienced in moments of creativity.” Families that flourish, Becvar believes, manifest resilience— they demonstrate the capacity to respond effectively to crises and to grow from the experience. “Accordingly,” she writes, “family members are able to make meaning in the face of adversity. They succeed in creating a story about events or finding a purpose in the midst of tragedy by means of which they are able to regain a foothold on life.” Moreover, she suggests, they are thereby successful in reclaiming or retaining a positive outlook following a crisis or period of change. “In addition,” she writes, “they find solace in a sense of transcendence or derive support from the spiritual realm, even when doing so requires additional exploration. They also evidence flexibility as well as a feeling of connectedness.”3
Likewise, Froma Walsh, in her text, “Strengthening Family Resilience,” seeks to better understand the processes that can foster systemic family resilience, and she does so with an eye toward wellness rather than pathology. A family systems resilience approach seeks to identify and fortify key interactional processes that enable families to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges.4A resilience lens, Walsh suggests, “shifts perspective from viewing distressed families as damaged to seeing them as challenged, affirming their potential for repair and growth.” Walsh notes that resilience has become an increasingly important concept in child development and mental health theory and research.5 Research has indicated that many individuals who suffered childhood adversity defied dire expectations of long-lasting and serious damage, instead growing up to lead full, loving, and productive lives. “However,” she writes, “the widely held view of resilience as individual hardiness, and the field’s skewed focus on family dysfunction, blinded many to the resources that could be found and strengthened in distressed families.”6
For Walsh and many others, a family resilience framework fundamentally alters traditional deficit-based perspectives. Instead of focusing on how families have failed, they redirect their attention to how they might succeed. Rather than giving up on troubled families and salvaging individual survivors, they attempt to draw out the best in families, building on key processes to encourage both individual and family growth. For these clinicians, resilience can be defined “as the capacity to rebound from adversity strengthened and more resourceful.”7
One can imagine the implications of this perspective, both for congregations and those who lead them, in applying family systems resilience theory to life in ministry. This perspective challenges our culture’s conventional wisdom that early or severe trauma can’t be undone; that adverse experiences always damage people sooner or later; and that children from broken or troubled families are doomed.8 Anecdotally it has been my experience that resilience is more than mere survival, a goal all too often employed in both contexts. Rather, this perspective enables the hope that persons, and institutions, can recover, flourish, heal, and live fully and well.
Walsh distinguishes resilience from faulty notions of “invulnerability” and “self-sufficiency.” Rather, she writes, “resilience is forged through openness to experiences and interdependence with others.”9Indeed, Walsh notes that the American ethos of the rugged individual10 with its associated images of masculinity and strength, has led many to confuse invulnerability with resilience.11 “The danger inherent in the myth of invulnerability is in equating human vulnerability with weakness, and invulnerability with strength.” Felsman and Vaillant, researchers in this arena, note, “The term invulnerability is antithetical to the human condition…in bearing witness to the resilient behavior of high-risk children everywhere a truer effort would be to understand, in form and by degree, the shared human qualities at work.”12
Most studies, Walsh notes, do not find that resilient individuals maintain a steady state of competence and high functioning through adversity.13 Moreover, she writes, “the capacity to rebound should not be misconstrued as simply ‘breezing through’ a crisis, unscathed by painful experience, as if fortified with a Teflon ego, troubles bouncing off without causing pain.”14 And, although she is not talking specifically about our lives in congregations, Walsh’s words here certainly ring true to one who often consults with congregations in crisis:
Our culture breeds intolerance for personal suffering; we avert our gaze from disability,
avoid contact with the bereaved, or dispense chirpy advice to “cheer up” and get over it.
Well-intentioned loved ones encourage people to get instant closure from personal life
crises and to leap into new relationships on the rebound from failed ones…we must be
careful not to equate competent functioning with resilience, which involves the whole
person, including emotional and relational well-being…resilience involves “struggling
well”: experiencing both suffering and courage, effectively working through difficulties
both internally and interpersonally. In forging resilience, we strive to integrate the fullness
of a crisis experience into the fabric of our individual and collective identity, influencing
how we go on with our lives.15
Theologically understood, resilience can be considered in that realm of human interactions that theologian Ed Farley referred to as the Interhuman Sphere. Farley, invoking Emmanuel Levinas and using language similar to that of Walsh, writes, “When we experience the face of the other, or when the face occurs in conjunction with being-together, we experience a summons, and invocation, a claim, a call to commitment and responsibility. This primordial summons is the basis of values in the normative culture…and evokes a response in which compassion and obligation converge.”16 It is significant that resilience and what Farley calls “compassionate obligation” share a similar contextual terrain. Walsh examines resilience and systems theory from the perspectives of ecology, developmental psychology, and neurobiology. As we shall see, recent developments in neurobiology provide evidence that interpersonal—indeed “inter-human”—connections play a significant role in shaping neural connections in the emerging mind and that the brain can be rewired through new experiences and altered relationship patterns throughout life.17
Change, Transition, and Resilience
On our Montana sojourn, we re-enacted the journey of all those who experience wilderness and Exodus journeys, replete with orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Like Abraham and Sarah, for whom the final destination was uncertain, such are often our journeys into the ever-changing terrains of our lives. William Bridges, in his excellent books, Transitions and The Way of Transition, suggests that while change is inevitable, transition is not. For Bridges, transition means accepting change, grieving what one has lost, and embracing the new.18 Bridges suggests that at its most basic level, transition helps us come to terms with change.19 It reorients us so that we can mobilize our energy to deal with the new situations we are facing. And, if we so choose, it can involve relinquishing old habits and expectations and developing new ones that fit the new situation.20Reorientation, Bridges suggests, is the essential function of transition. In engaging reorientation we have an opportunity to grow. Indeed, research on creativity and resilience suggests that unexpected solutions to difficult new situations may come out of murky, “liminal” (threshold) states where purpose and focus are temporarily suspended. Bridges refers to these liminal spaces as “neutral zones,” noting that it is precisely in these intermediate spaces that the direction of our lives may change in profound ways.21 We then may experience reorientation, and with it growth, authentication, and creativity—each requiring that we let go of our former ways of living.
Transition, Bridges suggests, has the power to renew us and prepare us for what is ahead. This is reminiscent of earlier definitions of resilience, and, in particular, of what Zolli and Healy refer to as “translational leaders”: leaders who encourage adaptation, agility, cooperation, connectivity, and diversity—in short, those who imaginatively embrace different ways of being in the world, and deeper engagements with it—are the most effective leaders.22 These are qualities impossible without transition as Bridges defines it.
Similarly, Gary Gunderson cites the importance of resilience among those whom he calls “boundary leaders.” “Sometimes it is not pretty or painless; indeed, sometimes the life they lead is pretty painful, but boundary leaders are resilient because they have a high tolerance for ambiguity and excellent survival skills. Although they may experience the boundary zone as a place of brokenness and contested authority, they are not defeated by either powerful interests that create the pain or by the divisions that threaten to obstruct the process and detour success.”23 Moreover, Gunderson believes that boundary leaders have strength of imagination intimately connected to resilience—a “subtle capacity to see what could be. Their capacity to learn and discern,” he suggests, “gives them a wide range of images of hope.” Evocative of our earlier images of complex ecological systems, Gunderson says that, “boundary leaders, because they live in webs of transformative relationships, think and envision at the scale of the system. This is not a personal virtue, something they ‘have’.” Rather, “It is a capacity they experience, nurture, sustain, encourage—all in the webs of relationship of which transformation is the fruit…they act as midwives to the imagination, listening, reflecting, and looking carefully for patterns and people and power.”24 Gunderson’s reference to imagination is especially key here, and so very relevant to our conversation. Without imagination, one wonders, is true resilience possible?
Resilience and Neuroscience
As an undergraduate neuroscience major, I had no idea that 35 years later my life, having taken what seemed a radical turn toward psychotherapy, the priesthood, and teaching pastoral care, would come full circle. As noted earlier, our advances in neuroscientific technology now give us the ability to “see” what we have known instinctively for centuries: that what we practice, and with whom, changes us. And this, in turn, informs our resilience in profound ways. In their lively text, A General Theory of Love, Lewis, Amini, and Lannon write: “The specific people to whom we are attached provoke a portion of our everyday neural activity. In the vistas of imagination, the self is a proud ship of state—subject to the winds and tides of circumstance, certainly, but bristling with masts and spars and beams, fairly bursting with solidity. We would scarcely imagine that identity could be as fluid as the seas that supposed self rides upon.”25 And, the authors suggest, “the reach of these limbic attractors”—those practices and relationships which form the daily warp and woof of our lives—“stretch beyond the moment. The sine qua non of a neural network is its penchant for strengthening neuronal patterns in direct proportion to their use.”26 Moreover, the more often one thinks or does or imagines a thing, “the more probable it is your mind will revisit its prior neuronal stopping point.”27 This has profound implications for such practices as centering prayer, mindfulness meditation, and worship of all kinds. It also suggests that who, and what, we love, and how we “practice” these faithful contextual immersions, can add to or detract from our capacity for resilience. Our liturgies, our patterns of exercise and prayer, even those with whom we choose to spend our time—the contexts and the relationships they contain—contribute to that person we are always becoming, and to our ability to change, adapt, flourish—in short, to our capacity for resilience:
In a relationship one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner. The astounding
legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power
to remodel the emotional parts of people we love, as our Attractors activate certain limbic
pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them. Who we are
and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.28
As is true in ecological systems, emotional and psychological resilience determines how well a person can handle stress and adversity, adapt to change, and remain fluid in response to new realities in the service of transition. Aside from genetics, there are numerous factors that contribute to the development of resilience, including nurturing early relationships and a positive self-concept. There are a number of research-based ways to promote resilience in the face of challenge, conflict and crisis. Each provides a unique route not only to better manage previously difficult-to-control emotional reactions but, ultimately, heal from trauma and other painful emotional and psychological experiences. Mindfulness-based therapies help people better attune to and reflect on their own experiences and the experiences of others, shifting perspective to keep the big picture and recover resiliency. Such practices as centering prayer and mindfulness meditation have been demonstrated to change neural pathways and neurochemistry, suggesting that resilience lies at the very heart of what it means to be human at the neuro-chemical level. Similarly, the growing field of interpersonal neurobiology assists persons in their ability to utilize innate social engagement abilities to find comfort and support from other people. Resilience at the level of neurochemistry, we are learning, occurs best in community. There is much discussion about the power of resilience and how it impacts vulnerability to stressors, regulatory processes, why some seem more resilient than others and how to foster resilience if it is lacking. These deeply ingrained patterns evoke habits of the heart and mind that can transform our ways of being in the world, and our resilience in response to the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
A Few Final Musings on Resilience
We live in what some have called the Age of Anxiety. As a pastoral counselor, Episcopal priest and pastoral theologian, it is increasingly my conviction that resilience is best understood in the context of hope amidst anxiety. Hope is deeply connected to our ability to cope with life’s difficulties and to live within—and into—communities of faith in ways that are life-giving and resilient. This is especially important in the midst of the life-depleting and debilitating culture of anxiety. In their remarkable book, Hope in the Age of Anxiety, Scioli and Biller refer to what they describe as “hopeful resiliency.”29 The authors believe hope to be at the core of what it means to be resilient. Of particular interest to those of us in the church is the “collaborative coping” of many religious individuals. Citing psychologist Kenneth Pargament, the authors note that these believers see themselves as engaged in a “joint effort:”
They do not view themselves as passive souls needing explicit formulas to address
life problems. They view their own strength and skill as important factors in coping with
these problems. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he asserted, “I can do all things
through Christ who gives me strength.” The Hindu practice of activating the inner “Atman”
(or divinity) is another example of coping that lies somewhere in the middle of the control
spectrum, halfway between purely internalized power and totally externalized dependence.30
The authors see “spiritual integrity” as one of the building blocks of hopeful resiliency and at the heart of what they describe as “a life-affirming proposition, the essential qualities of which are meaning in life; a sense of purpose; an ‘incorruptible core;’ and a commitment to a legacy. They include in this metaphysic both cosmic and personal meaning. That is, both a belief that one’s personal existence is meaningful, and that one has integrated one’s life experiences within a framework of values and principles.”31
Similarly, in his article on the Duke University Faith and Leadership website, Kavin Rowe writes:
Getting knocked down is as basic as being human—life just does this to us—and so is the
desire to get back up…Indeed, the difference between those who repeatedly get back up
and those who don’t is exactly the difference between those who are able to lead and those
who aren’t. The name for this difference is resilience, the ability to get back up again and
again and again and again. Kill hope, and resilience will die with it. And where resilience
is displayed, there you see hope. The first way to cultivate resilience within this moment
of the Christian story is to recalibrate our imaginations to the reality of profound difficulty
as a natural part of life.
Resilience, Rowe believes, is best learned in community. We often think of resilience in individual terms: “this or that person is resilient.” But communities of hope—the calling of all Christian communities—are actually places that have resilience written into their being. “They are founded on hope,” Rowe suggests, “and their very existence testifies to the fact that getting back up is not simply a matter of the individual will. We can be helped back up, and can learn how to help others up. Hope, therefore, is not only our own response to the world but is something we can extend to others and they can extend to us.” Further, Rowe believes that Christian communities often fall far short of being places of hope, but that is their foundation and their calling. Because of God’s work in Christ, we can, quite literally, hope for someone else, and they can hope for us. “Resilience, in this understanding,” Rowe writes, ”is a communal practice, the fruit of a common life rooted in hope itself. Resilient leaders are those who are best able to figure forth the hope of the community—not least in the face of failure, again and again and again.”32
On our Montana sojourn, I found a measure of resilience—or the tentative beginning of it—in a scorched, desolate forest already in transition, a coming back to life signified by an imaginative, creative flourishing beyond expectation. Just this past summer, I found myself running along a trail in northern Colorado, the site of which had experienced a fierce fire in 1994. Now, life flourished in the shadows of former trees, some still standing in testimony to the former conflagration. There, as I ran upward toward the Mummy Range, some 18 years after the fire, the aspen, fir, lodgepole pine and, yes, fireweed bore testimony to a deep, abiding resilience at the heart of things. As I ran, I was filled with gratitude, and with hope.
1 There are exceptions to this, especially in heavily populated areas. See this recent NPR story: (http://www.npr.org/2012/08/23/159373770/the-new-normal-for-wildfires-forest-killing-megablazes. Accessed on October 6, 2012.
2 Dorothy S. Becvar, Families that Flourish: Facilitating Resilience in Clinical Practice, (New York: Norton, 2007).
3 All quotes in this paragraph from Ibid., 71-72.
4 Froma Walsh, Strengthening Family Resilience, (New York: Guilford Press, 2006).
5 Resilience theory, part of a larger Positive Psychology movement, is not limited to cognitive behavioral theory, but has far-reaching implications for treatment modalities and theoretical positions across the spectrum.
6 All quotes in this paragraph from Ibid, 4-6.
7 Ibid., 4.
8 Ibid., 4-6.
9 Ibid., 15.
10 See Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987).
11 Ibid., 5.
12 Felsman, J.K. & Vaillant, G. “Resilient Children as adults: A 40-year. Study.” In E.J. Anthony & B. Cohler (eds.) , The Invulnerable Child (New York: Guilford Press, 1987), 289.
13 Walsh, 5-7.
14 Ibid., 5.
15 Ibid., 6.
16 Ed Farley, Good and Evil: Interpreting a human condition. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990).
17 Ibid., p.7. In its recent public education campaign “Road to Resiliency” the American Psychological Association encourages programs to build resilience, much like building muscle, contending that the more we exercise it, the stronger it will get, increasing our ability to handle stress (www.apahelpcenter.org). Accessed October 7, 2012.
18 William Bridges, Transitions, (Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2004).
19 William Bridges, The Way of Transition, (Cambridge, Perseus Press, 2001).
20 Ibid., 33-34.
21 Ibid., 38-39.
22 Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, (New York, Free Press, 2012), 15-16.
23 Gary Gunderson, Boundary Leaders: Leadership Skills for People of Faith,(Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2004), 92-93.
24 Other than noted above, all quotes in this paragraph from Ibid., 97-98.
25 Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love, (New York: Vintage, 2001), 143-144.
26 Ibid., 143-144.
27 Ibid., 143.
28 Ibid., 143-144.
29 Anthony Scioli, Henry Biller, Hope in the Age of Anxiety, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
30 Ibid., 205-223.
31 Ibid., 211.
32 All quotations in this paragraph from C. Kavin Rowe, “Cultivating Resilience in Christ-Shaped Leaders,” http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/c-kavin-rowe-cultivating-resilience-christ-shaped-leaders. Accessed on October 8, 2012.