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Resilience Is a Skill Not a Label

Published on
July 22, 2021

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t like the word resilient. It is often used to label military spouses and children, intended to evoke feelings of pride. While the skill of resilience is lifesaving, the label can undermine even the best of intentions. At its best, the label feels patronizing, at its worst sets up overwhelmed military families to fail. 

Originally published in Military Spouse Magazine.

Knowing Our Whys

In his viral TedTalk Simon Sinek discusses something called the Golden Circle. He explains that the what, how and why of the world around us impacts how decisions are made. Starting in the center of our brains in the limbic system, the “whys” that drive our gut feelings. This part of our brain does not have access to language, which is why it is often hard to describe how we arrived at our “gut” decisions. 

The Military Golden Circle – Adapted from Simon Sinek’s TedTalk

He describes how companies like Apple don’t need to sell you on their products because they have already sold you on their why. Apple says: “Think Different” and customers who purchase from Apple know that they are not just replacing an old phone, but are getting a new product born out of innovation. Their customers purchase the “why” (innovation) not the “what” (a phone).

How does this relate to military families and the word resilience? Resilience is an essential, lifesaving skill, but it should not be a label. Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. But the focus of this label is not on the person that is being stretched but their reaction to an external problem. So, when military families are being defined by their reaction to their servicemember’s job/lifestyle they are set up to fail.

The label puts the why just out of reach for military families who often feel like they do not belong within the military community that relies upon them but also calls them dependents. This is made more difficult because the military seemingly doesn’t know how to define the official role of the family member either.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Sinek says. “What you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.” 

If the military exists to protect our country, and military families exist to support the military family (why), how do military families who under-perform at resilience (ask for help “too much”, break down vs. remain strong) fit?

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. What you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe. – Simon Sinek

What’s Wrong with Resilience?

Why does this one small self-defining word matter? It’s just bad and dangerous storytelling.

Human beings tell stories. It is part of our DNA. But the word resilient does not put us at the center of our own stories. We need to stop writing ourselves and our children into our own stories as supporting characters. We need to write ourselves in as heroes.

Heroes defeat the enemy, and it doesn’t come back. They slay giants. They overcome. They don’t simply bounce back after being punched like one of those clown-shaped punching bags. 

Classic storytelling follows a pattern called a “hero’s journey.” Think Frodo and the ring, Luke Skywalker (or Rae) becoming a Jedi, or nearly every Disney movie ever made. It usually starts in the hero’s ordinary world where he/she is called to an adventure. At first, they resist, until the next stage of the story when they are offered mentorship and guidance that empowers them to cross over into a period of hardship and testing. This period of testing culminates in a grand ordeal or struggle followed by a huge victory – like the destruction of the Death Star – followed by an official recognition and reward. The last part of the hero’s journey is the road home where they discover an ultimate lesson and return home to a “new normal.”

The military lifestyle also requires a spouse or family member to go on an adventure where they are faced with many ordeals. There are transformational moments and a discovery of a new normal, but this cycle never ends. Resiliency is our ability to go through this cycle again and again.

The main difference between the traditional hero’s journey and the military lifestyle is that we are expected to perform well through adversity when most examples seen in books and movies are “reluctant” heroes. When we receive a reward or recognition it is with an understanding that we performed the job that is expected of us, making those who are unable to “rise to the occasion” feel like they have failed and are not really a hero at all. This is a very dangerous narrative leading to feelings of inadequacy and depression.

When we do everything correctly, we feel part of a larger unit. We support our service member and are vital to their ability to serve. However, our contributions are unofficial. And our reward is knowledge of a job well done. This expectation of success minimizes the rewards of a successful journey. This could be avoided by allowing resilience to remain a skill and retire its use as our go-to label.

Good Storytelling Matters

The Civil Rights Movement was led by many people, but none wielded words like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King did not tell people what was. He painted pictures of what could be. He focused on casting a vision of the future, painting vivid pictures of his why. He was able to not only encourage his own supporters, but also his opponents/detractors. He took the high road, calling out his opponents’ hypocrisy in treating fellow men and women as lesser than, under a God and a Constitution that holds all men and women in high esteem. 

He didn’t say “I have a plan.” He said, “I have a dream.” He used language to catalyze a movement.

Instead of calling ourselves, or worse yet, our children resilient — let’s stop. What do we want our future to look like? Our children’s? I want to hold my head up high and say I serve too, in my own way. I’m a valued member of this military family. I take ownership over my role in this military life and am happy it is a part of who I am and what I do. And yes, sometimes it sucks, but what aspect of life doesn’t suck at some time or another? 

There may not be one word that accurately describes the contributions of a military family, but it’s not resilient. We are strong and deserve to be the heroes of our own narratives. We simply need to pick up the pen and start writing.

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