Resilience: A Way of Change
A Sermon by Reverend Lynn Thomas Strauss
Two weeks ago I realized that I need to work on being a more resilient person. It was mid-afternoon, a weekday, at Logan airport.
The sun was shining, we’d had a lovely visit with friends in Cambridge. We didn’t have much luggage, I always travel very light to cut down the hassle. We had lunch in the airport restaurant. All was well…until!
We entered the area approaching the security gates. The place was packed with people. We were directed to a long, slow switchback line…there were just two security officers at those desks where they look at your ID and your boarding pass.
Now, I’ll stop right here and tell you that I know it’s a privilege to afford air travel. I know Homeland Security exists for good reason. I know others in that line may have been hungry or needing a bathroom. Some were standing painfully on arthritic knees or anxiety-ridden while corralling small children. No doubt some had legitimately-diagnosed fears and phobias.
But it was hot and close and slow. We were in that snaking line for over an hour. No exaggeration. Everyone at first was quiet and patient, but as we passed the same strangers over and over as the line moved, people began to complain to one another. I remained quiet, stoic, and compliant -- as my mother and my elementary school teachers taught me.
Finally, I made it through to the metal tables with the plastic containers. I took off my shoes, put my purse and jacket in my single container and was relieved to be just about free and clear. And then it happened…I walked through the scanner and the officer told me to stand to the side and he called over a female officer.
I thought I would scream. Now I’ll stop right here and say I know I wasn’t a victim of racial profiling- but only of randomness- I had no need to fear detention or arrest, but I felt afraid and anxious.
I forced myself to stay calm. I knew better than to say anything in my own defense. The officer took me aside and, without any kindness or explanation, told me to put out my hands…I had never encountered this before. I did as I was told, feeling humiliated and upset.
She rolled some strange device over my palms, looking at some monitor as she did so.
It took only a few minutes and then she let me go. I felt violated, hands are an intimate part of our bodies. I don’t normally hold them out to just anyone. I looked around for some officer to speak to, to ask a question or lodge a complaint, there was no one paying any attention, or showing any shred of decency or compassion.
I was shaking and crying. I rushed to the bathroom…in my bare feet…carrying my shoes and purse and jacket. I felt angry and helpless…America, Logan Airport, in the 21st century.
I’m sure you have similar examples you could share -- examples of losing it. Because we, in this room, have been through a lot together -- 9/11, the DC sniper, the world has been through hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, droughts, and floods. Computer hacking, shootings in churches, schools and movie theaters, and in poor, gang-ridden neighborhoods throughout America. This is the world we live in. How will we get through and retain hope and joy and connection? How will we bounce back? How will our liberal faith support us in these times?
I felt I should have been more resilient. But really, my gut was shouting that the system should have been more resilient…more flexible, more adaptive to multiple needs and realities.
We live in a world of systems…family systems, corporate systems, defense systems, computer platform systems, educational systems, congregational systems, bio-diversity systems, and our own biological and emotional systems.
All of these systems are vulnerable to disruption, turbulence and adversity. And disruption is fast becoming the norm. So what do we do? You’ve heard it before…it’s not about the bad things that happen to us…but how we respond to them.
Projections and reports in weather forecasting, in the world economic markets, in political uprisings around the globe, in the threat of tainted food or medicines, provide us with continuous warnings of disruption and turmoil to come. How will we respond? How can we learn to respond in ways that help us and also enhance the systems’ ability to bounce back…to be resilient?
In the words of Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptive to change.” To survive, we must be resilient.
Resilience is the new buzz word among analysts, planners, and systems thinkers in all fields.
Froma Walsh, in her newly-reissued book, Strengthening Family Resilience, defines resilience as the capacity to rebound from adversity strengthened and more resourceful. It is more than surviving. In fact, it is about what happens next, after you survive.
Many sociologists and writers in the field of psychology have critiqued the American ethos of the rugged individual. Being tough, rigid, and able to take another punch is no longer adaptive in our post-modern world.
Nor is hiding under your desk during an atomic attack or using duct tape in a terrorist attack a reasonable approach. We must face reality honestly. Keeping important things secret is not a resilient choice. We must speak our truth, acknowledge our reality. As a teenager I knew that my brother was a drug addict, but I was expected to keep it a secret. How much more resilient my family would have been if we faced the truth, however painful.
Facing reality and making meaning of it is at the core of building resilience. We can find the courage and flexibility to deal with risk and adversity, only if we face reality with some appropriate tools.
Clearly, I did not have the appropriate tools to take on airport security at Logan. Though I might have handled it better, I still believe it is the security system that needs resilience not me. What would it be like, if airport security encouraged feedback? What if there was an acknowledgement that to take off our shoes before we get on a plane is strange? What if there was efficiency in the system…or an apology when things are clearly not going smoothly? Or even an explanation of why they do what they do to you!
A wonderful book on all this is titled Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy.
They define resilience as the capacity of a system, enterprise or person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.
They say if we can’t control the volatile tides of change, we can learn to build better boats. They lay out the characteristics of a better boat:
1. The first characteristic of resilient systems is tight feedback systems. Think of the check engine light in your car, or the Twitter Earthquake Detector, or charting of a shift in buying habits, or the study of migration patterns worldwide and how they predict potential outbreak of disease. Zolli says we are soaking in a world of sensors. Some of which intend to warn us if a tipping point of disruption is on the way.
How can we create more effective feedback loops between our actions and their consequences?
2. Resilient systems are diversified systems. In an environment where water access is at risk, create multiple sources of water. Create modular structures that allow a system to be reconfigured quickly when disruption strikes. Maybe PEPCO could learn to have more than one source from which to deliver power to Montgomery County. Expand the diversity of sources that feed the system. Just be sure they’re simple, like wind power, and not increasingly complex structures.
How might we decouple from a scarce underlying resource or make our infrastructure more modular?
The most resilient systems, according to the authors, can reconfigure themselves continuously and fluidly to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, while continuing to fulfill their purpose.
I think of the children’s story, Alice in Wonderland. Alice has resources to assist her in adaptation. Once she fell down the rabbit hole, she was too big and found a drink that made her small. And when she needed to be big again, there was another magic food that made her grow. Seeking help to fulfill her purpose, she found a tea party, a wise caterpillar and an anxious white rabbit. Not all the resources worked…the Red Queen, for example…but Alice herself proved quite resilient, changing fluidly to circumstances beyond her control.
Perhaps the current popular culture among the young which focuses on shape shifters, avatars, disaster movies and super heroes is an unconsciousness search by the next generation to understand and build greater capacity for resilience.
3. We look to the younger generation because we know habits of mind play a part in resilience. Resilience in groups relies on trust and cooperation and people’s ability to collaborate when it counts. Young people are developing new and resilient networks. No more bowling alone for them.
Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet are preparing people to trust in a wider arc, to collaborate with people they may never meet face to face. This is a change of mindset. And the good news is that we know the mind is more flexible than we thought…that we can set down new patterns of thought.
4. Regularly introducing diversity plays an important role in resilience. We know this about bio-diversity, and it is also true in communities.
Here at UUCR, increasing our diversity of membership allows us to increase our diversity of life experiences, of perspectives and wisdom. We don’t want more people of color to join our congregation so we can show we’re not racist, we want more of all kinds of diversity, because it will make us a healthier, more resilient community.
Changing our thinking is a significant step in adapting to the new normal.
Unitarian Universalist principles and the traditions of our liberal faith can stand us in good stead in our mental boat building. Because ours is a faith of hope rather than fear, of questions rather than answers, of diversity of beliefs and perspectives, of the journey rather than the destination, we have important elements of resilience in our tool kit.
Our fundamental stance is to welcome change…to stay open to new learnings and new insights, to share authority and find wisdom in many sources…all these make us a good religious choice for the 21st century.
Our Principles contain these words…growth, search, meaning, process, community, interdependent and web of which we are a part. As people who have embraced a chosen faith, we have learned to adapt.
So the four characteristics of resilience are: 1. tight feedback loops, 2. diversified sources, 3. new habits of mind, and 4. increasing diversities.
Let me share one example from Zolli’s book of a meaningful experience of resilience that helped to save lives immediately after the earthquake in Haiti. The story is true; it’s called “Mission 4636.”
In the devastating earthquake near Port-au-Prince on January 10, 2010, 316,000 Haitians were killed and 300,000 were injured. A million more were made homeless. Physical infrastructure was leveled, entire departments of government obliterated. Citizens were traumatized.
Before the age of the Internet, many more lives would have been lost. The instantaneous news of the disaster unlocked a uniquely collaborative global response, one that harnessed a global community of volunteers, technologists, first responders, and Haitian citizens at home and abroad.
Seventeen hundred miles away from Haiti, in Sommerville, Massachusetts, there already existed a group of Tufts students interested in crisis mapping, a new field of disaster analysis that used satellite imagery and data sent in through texts, Twitter and Facebook to map out the impacts of an unfolding crisis and coordinate response. This group began immediately to map the crisis in Haiti.
Thousands of people all over the globe collaborated on line and on Twitter, in response to the quake, making it the largest crowd-sourced crisis mapping ever undertaken.
Several years before the Haiti crisis, a web platform had been created in the blogosphere to report and respond to a violent political situation in Kenya.
This platform allowed citizens to access and follow the trends of violence moving through communities. The platform was called “Ushahidi,” which means to bear witness in Swahili.
With a few phone calls within the International Network of Crisis Mappers, Ushadidi’s technical director customized the platform for use in the Haiti disaster.
Information streams - what was happening where and and what was needed on the ground - began pouring out of Haiti. Tracking and processing into different categories allowed first responders to know where and what was needed on the ground.
But finding the right coordinates to deliver care was impossible amid all the destruction by people who had never been to Haiti. Skype chats and logins were used and expats, Haitian’s living around the globe, logged in to help explain the coordinates -- the names of streets, etc.
The open nature of the platform allowed recruitment and even more collaboration.
One problem was lack of Internet access on the ground …few Haitians had computers and the service was down after the quake…but most had cell phones and that’s where texting and Twitter came into play.
Then a new problem surfaced…a language gap between those who spoke Haitian Kreyol and those volunteers who mostly spoke English. Translators had to be found and the Haitian diaspora was plugged in.
The Marine Corps used Mission 4636 to get relief to the right places in time to save lives. There are no official statistics of how many lives were saved, but the average response time to translate, map/geo-code and categorize a message never exceeded two minutes. They processed more than 100,000 SMS text messages.
By the time Mission 4636 was over, a whole ecosystem of collaborators -- coders, software architects, volunteer mappers, Haitian American translators, Haitian citizens, NGOs, first responders from the Marines, Red Cross, State Department, and the UN -- had all worked together, most without ever having met one another in person. Global responses to system disruption are happening everyday somewhere in the world.
There are many more amazing stories of resilience in this book, from the tortilla food riots in Mexico, to CeaseFire in Chicago, which fights violence by tracking and interrupting before crisis is reached, to protecting bio-diversity in the fishing industry.
I conclude with a closing paragraph from Zolli’s book:
“The journey toward resilience is the great moral quest of our age. It is the lens with which we must necessarily adjust our relationships to one another, to our communities and institutions, and to our planet.
We must remember that there are no finish lines here and no silver bullets. Resilience is always, perhaps maddeningly, provisional, and its insistence toward holism, longer term thinking, and less-than-peak efficiency represent real political challenges. Many efforts to achieve it will fail, and even a wildly successful effort to boost it will fade, as new forces of change are brought to bear on a system.
Resilience must continuously be refreshed and recommitted to. Every effort at resilience buys us not certainty, but another day, another chance. Every day is day one.”
Our liberal faith holds change as a foundational value. Thus we are ready for the challenges of a more resilient future.