Not Dead Yet: why we should use the word ‘endurance’ rather than ‘resilience’.

by David Gilbert

September 23, 2021

I have endured a week of terrible pain. I haven’t been resilient, merely held on. As the green spasmodic juices continued to be wrung from my unwilling gut, and my weight toppled by 5kg due to a ferocious bout of gastroenteritis, I merely said to myself ‘not dead yet, not dead yet’. But there were many times another part of me wished I was dead. 

I wasn’t resilient. There are no capabilities I own to my getting through. Something in me, call it the life-force if you wish, call it breathing, call it what you will. But not resilience. And it wasn’t ‘me’. Not my personality, my identity, my characteristics, my competencies, my self-leadership abilities. 

This is as true as it was when during bouts of mental pain, something in me managed to hold on. 

Pain only grants you gifts as it leaves. The only lessons, via its lessening. The immense relief. The ability to breathe, to notice the breeze on your face, to hear birds again – not to sense that their songs are mirth at your suffering, as your mind is affected by rancid interpretations of truth. And gratitude for those who love and support me, particularly my wife, Susan. 

And retrospectively, we see yet again how fragile human beings are, and being is. Though the ferocious spirit of endurance runs through our delicate energies like blood. As my wise friend, Michael Fox, once said ‘you are stronger than you think, but not in the way you think you are’. 

Stop using the word ‘resilience’. It denote a ‘grit’ of character, of ‘personality’. It speaks to a toughness of a particular type – hard-nosed, determined, armoured, wilful. It speaks nothing of softness and adaptation, but of a weary (male-defined) machismo trope. 

It denies suffering, implying that there is some sort of choice to be made about it – ‘stand up to it’, be ‘resilient’ (be a man). ‘Resistance’ is what matters – it is not a ‘going through’ pain that is required but an almost militaristic ability to defend against it, to beat it off with your resiliatory powers. 

It aligns well with stigmatising notions of ‘get over it’ or ‘mind over matter’ or even ‘be happy’ and provides a defence against anxiety for those who use the phrase, allowing them to ‘other’ the person ‘going through’ stuff. It is a double-whammy. Not only is it an incorrect description of what it is to go through pain, but foists a judgement on those who are deemed lacking in the quality.  

More deeply, ‘resilience’ speaks the language of corporate competencies, redolent of ableist societal and institutional judgement. It has been harnessed for a thousand wasted wellbeing strategies that individualise and can pin blame for suffering on the ‘victim’. 

In healthcare, the growth of a staff wellbeing industry, allows zillions to be thrown at ‘tactics for individual resilience’. This can slide insidiously into supervision and personal development plans and thus become ‘measured’ - aka did you attend that ‘mindfulness session?

This staff wellbeing industry becomes a behemoth, siloed from other corporate priorities and divorced from the systems and processes that have caused the cultural problems in the first place. It means that the NHS can be seen to ‘have its cake and eat it’ (i.e. allow poor cultures in terms of pressures on staff, yet be seen to be doing something about it). This dysfunctional approach has been exacerbated by Covid. 

So: Be with me while I endure. And I will be with you as far as I can. I am not resilient. Nor are you. We do the best we can. 

Meanwhile, everyone I know, and many more that I don’t, are really struggling at the moment with the deep chaos around them. I think this is to do with a lack of ability to make sense of what’s going on. Maybe we just (just?!) need to endure.

The changes sweeping the world, the doom-laden consequences of many of them, the frequency we hear bad news (without context), our inability to turn off stimuli in our lives, means our sense-making powers are flooded. And there are hugely competing narratives also fighting each other. Volatility, binary thinking, catastrophisation of language, the immediacy of impulsive behaviour, the sense of powerlessness we have, lead to our undoing.

Those of us who have been affected by health conditions, perhaps particularly those who have had suffered mental anguish, know well these vast spaces of turmoil, internally and around us. We try to make sense of where we are and where we are going by utilising broken compasses. Resilience it is not. It is simply endurance. Holding on. Doing whatever we can… ‘whatever gets you through the night’.

I think we are in a period of history where all we can do is endure. And, gosh we are losing weight. Those juices look vile. 

Nothing matters to me more this morning than my first bite of toast. I am brought back to the small things, the kindnesses, the moment. That is, and will be pain’s legacy. For now, we endure.  


And here is all the above, better put in poetic form. 

Sick

Attritional trips. I churn out
spasmodic green juice.

My body is eating itself.

Poetry is not for love 
but endurance. 

A gull drifts through
my life – my small square of window –
with ferocious nonchalance. 

Not dead yet, I spit. 

© 2021 David Gilbert 

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