Rethinking ‘Resilience’ and ‘Grit’
Christine “Cissy” White is an advocate for survivors of trauma and is one herself. The 52-year-old lives in Weymouth, Mass., earning her living as a community facilitator for an organization that provides a social media hub and other forms of support to people who have struggled as she did.
Helping others in this way is also her personal passion: she experienced many setbacks. White’s mother was just a teen when White was born and throughout much of her childhood, her mother was the sole provider — her mother’s first husband was violent, homeless, and absent. Growing up poor, she would hide the tape and paper clips that held her broken glasses together behind her bangs. She said she was “not hungry” when she was out with friends and starving but couldn’t afford food, and she used paper towels instead of tampons when she was a teenager because she couldn’t afford them, either.
But White survived this poverty and neglect. She went to Hampshire College, the first person to attain higher education in her family. She eventually started her own family and thrived: She now offers care and inspiration to people who have experienced or are currently undergoing similar traumas, parents in particular. But there is one common explanation for her and others’ survival that she has a particular distaste for — “resilience.”
White tells me that she “rages and recoils” when she hears about “resilience,” which happens more and more. I hear the word all the time too and you probably do as well. It came up during the presidential primary debate in September, for instance, when the Democratic candidates were asked which of their life events made them resilient. (For Bernie Sanders it was “growing up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an immigrant.”) Next year, the World Health Organization will make resilience one of its priorities. In the last seven years or so, resilience has become a programming imperative for large philanthropies, including the Hogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and many others. Resilience has also become a theory to explain the good — from countries that adapt well to climate change to what allows some to survive addiction.
White, though, has written a number of posts on on her nonprofit’s blog questioning this resilience refrain. She believes that when “we are obsessing about resilience it obscures the fundamental issues that people have, like a lack of privilege or a history of trauma.” When “resilience” is applied to at-risk kids, says White, it implies “the solutions reside within an individual and not their context: ‘resilience’ skews conversations away from equity.” The assumption is that having “character” will help traumatized people flourish — and if they don’t flourish, there is an implied lack of character.
“Ninety percent of resilience conversations would be better if the focus was, instead, on racial and economic inequities,” she wrote in correspondence with me.
But “resilience” and “grittiness” have become ubiquitous honorifics — likely to come out of the mouths of not only teachers but also therapists, urban planners, businessmen, and policymakers, all praising individual pluck.
Thanks to Angela Duckworth’s bestseller of the same name, “grit” is now a part of American school life: In New Hampshire, for instance, some grammar school students are taught “grit skills” by teachers who follow a “grit curriculum.” One grit lesson includes interviewing a neighbor, for example, who has shown grit and creating that person’s “perseverance walk,” outlining how they achieved their goals.
There is a now even a grit and resilience industry.
“Resilience is knowing that you are the only one that has the power and responsibility to pick yourself up,” says Mary Holloway, a “resilience coach” and the creator of the “Boom Bounce Wow Resilience Method.” There are also dozens of self-help books promising to make you more resilient or more gritty, including one that promises to create resilience with the subtitle “How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness.” One of the biggest resilience bestsellers is “Option B” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Apps have also gotten into the resilience and positive psychology game, with names such as ResilientMe and Happify. And there is even a “resilience planner” bearing the legend “Stay Resilient 2019,” which is currently sold out.
But some critics are starting to question this mania. Articles in publications from The New Yorker to Education Week have pointed out the trouble with grit: More than five studies in peer-reviewed journals in the last few years have questioned the concept, for instance, and as a writer at the Hechinger Report put it “the criticisms range widely.” They include statistical and methodological errors in how grit is measured. A handful of educators have also noted a class bias in how and when the term is used. Raymond Arroyo, a former New York City schoolteacher, dislikes the word for its element of blaming-the-victim, who is usually lower-income.
“What frustrates me is that the discussion around Grit is always in reference to low performing schools,” Arroyo blogged on Medium in 2017. These schools tend to be in the poorest regions in the country, Arroyo pointed out — and the assumption is that his former students are not “successful because they don’t work hard enough.”
There’s also a growing — though much smaller — academic backlash to the term “resilience.” Critics note the focus on “resilience” can ignore the structural gaps of our economy, for example. Should we really be building personal capacities to triumph over, say, the “adversity” that is the current scarcity of public funding for education?
Joanne Jordan, a senior research consultant in climate resilience at The University of Manchester writes, “Resilience is increasingly becoming the new buzz word” but “as commonly understood, [it] is inadequate for understanding the intersecting vulnerabilities that women face.” External factors like gender and power matter in how individuals and communities fare. They are just as, or more important than, individual efforts to endure adversity.
And a recent survey conducted by Ohio State University researchers and Everyday Health found that people overstated their own capacity in this regard: 57 percent of respondents scored as resilient on the survey while a much larger 83 percent believed they were resilient.
There is also a more historical critique on offer. According to William Huntting Howell, a professor at Boston University and the author of the academic book “Against Self-Reliance,” grit and resilience are simply versions of an old American trope, in which a citizen’s greatest attribute is their self-sufficiency. “You see the language of resilience and grit — not those words but rather ‘self-reliance’ — starting in the latter part of the 19th century. Horatio Alger and others all emerge after the Civil War when people came to cities to make their fortunes.”
In other words, resilience and grit are central elements of our American mythology. What is less commonly acknowledged is that there can be a Darwinian inflection to these terms, one that is well suited to our country’s current extreme capitalism.
But why not start reconceptualizing these watchwords? What if we used them less and didn’t jump to fund things when they had the word slapped across them?
For Cissy White, one of the big events that shaped her trajectory, she tells me, was her family’s move from working-class Brighton and Waltham to the upper-middle-class town of Harvard. That move showed her the difference between growing up in a place where the whole community is challenged by being poor and one where only one family — hers — was challenged. She had many more resources, for example, in her wealthier school district and this ultimately helped her get some of what she needed to survive. This makes her see her own story of resilience as one complicated by unexpected points of economic access in her later youth.
Today, she has close relationship with her mother and siblings. She adopted a daughter she adores, now a car-driving teenager. Her daughter is the same age her mother was when she was pregnant with her first child, but White’s daughter will have different opportunities than White’s mother did.
To some, this might seem like the outcome of White’s personal resilience. But not to White.
”Resilience conversations are well-disguised victim-blaming,” says White. ”A lot of what we call ‘resilient’ is really what you might also call ‘well-resourced.’”
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of the poetry collection Thoughts and Prayers and the nonfiction book Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.
Co-published with The Boston Globe.