'Resilience' is a Dirty Word, Lady

Among military wives, ‘resilience’ has become a kind of a dirty word. When any speaker mentioned resilience at our Military.com National Spouse Summit this year, the crowd looked like they were going to spit something nasty under the table.

After 13 years of war, has ‘resilience’ become a code word in the military community for suck it up?

Sure seems like it.

The rest of the country loves resilience. They are congratulating recently fired New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson for her rousing commencement speech urging Wake Forest graduates to practice resilience and “show them what you are made of.”

They are buying books about resilience, pinning resilience quotes to their Pintrest pages, and generally joining what Timothy Noah called “The Cult of Resilience.”

Yet that message of resilience isn’t going over well in the military.

That wasn’t supposed to happen with resilience.

Teaching resilience was supposed to help us all cope with the demands of war. When the Army introduced its $117 million dollar Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program in 2009 (now called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness which costs more than $50 million per year to operate) I was delighted to see that they had brought in the big guns like former APA president Marty Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology.

I read the research. I adopted some of the practices. I am always happy to share the how-tos of resilience.  I believed.

Still, the program doesn’t seem to be working for everyone.  Or even for most people. Last fall, the Army published a study that shows no direct link between the CSF training and reducing rates of diagnosis for depression, anxiety and PTSD.

The implied message of resilience.

Military spouses say that part of the problem is that you hear ‘resilience’ and somewhere in that there is an implied message that you should already be resilient. There is a message that if your family is struggling, then you are already failing.

The people who teach CSF hate that idea. They stress that resilience is a set of skills that can be taught. They say there are simple things you can do to increase your ability as a family to get through times of trouble. They are believers, too.

But when spouses hear the skills of resilience, the skills themselves seem so small, so weak, so meaningless against the size of their war-driven problems.

Don't big problems demand big solutions?

When you have big problems, you can’t help but expect big solutions.  When you have a returning service member who turns puce if you spill something in the car, or drinks every night until he is passed out, or starts telling the kids leave the room just because he is in there, or leaves your bed at 3 a.m. to do heaven-knows-what on the computer, then of course you want a big, big, BIG solution.

And the message being sent is that there isn’t one.

There isn’t a pill. There isn’t an operation. There isn’t an app to download that makes all that disappear overnight.

There is no such thing as a big, instant, perfect solution that will bounce your family right back to normal.

Instead there are 12 free sessions with a therapist through Military OneSource. There is therapy available from Tricare. There are the skills of resilience that seem so inconsequential in the face of enormous fear and hardship. These skills can seem as substantial as a wet tent flapping on a beach while a hurricane roars around you.

Those small things are supposed to be the big solution the Army offers? No wonder why spouses hate the word resilience.

Resilience is one way back.

Yet, yet, yet. Yet if you talk to the people who came back from hard times, they tell you about how it was the little things that brought them back together.  One thing a therapist said. One practice they adopted. One fight they stopped having. One thing they did over and over until it worked.

Their solutions seem almost accidental. Almost miraculous.

Especially in the face of the magnitude of the things that have happened to some people. The truth is that some of the things that have happened to people in this decade of war have been so bad that there is no coming back. Things will crack. Things will break. Things will fall apart forever.

It takes a great leap of faith to invest in resilience. The skills may, in fact, work.  They have worked for people.  There is no denying that the people teaching the skills believe in their power when practiced regularly.

Yet the energy to believe in those skills, to invest in those practices may not be there now--now, when we need it most.

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