Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 22, 2010

Resilience redux: Our capacity for creative community response

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 22, 2010

Shortly new outcomes will be published in a continuing study of post-9/11 psycho-social impacts.  According to the study’s abstract:

Exposure to adverse life events typically predicts subsequent negative effects on mental health and well-being, such that more adversity predicts worse outcomes. However, adverse experiences may also foster subsequent resilience, with resulting advantages for mental health and well-being. In a multiyear longitudinal study of a national sample, people with a history of some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity but also than people with no history of adversity… These results suggest that, in moderation, whatever does not kill us may indeed make us stronger.

The full study will be available in the next-to-be-published-online  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Look for “Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience,” by Mark Seery, E. Alison Holman, and Roxanne Cohen Silver. 

In its pre-publication announcement Seery’s University of Buffalo gives some additional background:

“We tested for quadratic relationships between lifetime adversity and a variety of longitudinal measures of mental health and well-being, including global distress, functional impairment, post-traumatic stress symptoms and life satisfaction,” Seery says.

“Consistent with prior research on the impact of adversity, linear effects emerged in our results, such that more lifetime adversity was associated with higher global distress, functional impairment and PTS symptoms, as well as lower life satisfaction.

“However,” says Seery, “our results also yielded quadratic, U-shaped patterns, demonstrating a critical qualification to the seemingly simple relationship between lifetime adversity and outcomes.

“Our findings revealed,” he says, “that a history of some lifetime adversity — relative to both no adversity or high adversity — predicted lower global distress, lower functional impairment, lower PTS symptoms and higher life satisfaction.”

The team also found that, across these same longitudinal outcome measures, people with a history of some lifetime adversity appeared less negatively affected by recent adverse events than other individuals.

Prior reports from the same longitudinal effort have focused on ethnicity, gender, and other factors.   Seery cautions, “there is much work that still needs to be done to fully understand resilience and where it comes from.”

Since last Friday I have, at the request of John Comiskey, engaged in an online dialogue regarding resilience with students from Pace University.  The students had been assigned to read, among other resources, Resilience: The Grand Strategy which originated with several blog posts here at Homeland Security Watch.  They may have also read last week’s post on resilience.  You can review the dialogue in the comment section of last Friday’s post. (It is a long string with over 50 comments.)

Like Dr. Seery and his colleagues, the online discussion was focused on better understanding resilience and its origins.  We began by considering that resilience is a function of being well-informed.  When we understand our risks and the threats, vulnerabilities and consequences that constitute our risks we can — as individuals, families, neighborhoods, or other social units — take action to reduce vulnerabilities, counter threats and mitigate consequences.

But while this information strategy may be entirely true or at least entirely possible, discussants argued that the vast majority of people either ignore the information available or under-estimate the risk implications of the information.  We then examined the well-demonstrated tendency of humans to discount risk.  While it was clear that information alone will not encourage more realistic engagement with risk, we did not articulate a more effective strategy. (UPDATE: Thursday night, after this post was already cued up, a student offered a very promising strategy.)

Some, but certainly not all, of the discussants find the government and its response to various external threats at least as threatening — and perhaps more threatening — than terrorist attack, industrial accident, or natural disaster.  This perception raised the issue of our psycho-social response being an essential element of resilience.  Resilience is not just a characteristic of infrastructure and technological systems.  No matter what happens to these non-human systems it is the human system — expressed in a variety of ways, but especially through the political system — that is often the critical factor in whether we are resilient or not, whether we bounce or break, whether we bounce back better or considerably worse.

The most interesting element of the discussion (at least for me) was exploring the tension between strength and flexibilty.   It seems to me reasonably self-evident that resilience involves both of these characteristics.  We are not dealing with either/or but both/and.  It is the balance or perhaps the mix that is crucial and ambiguous and almost certainly situational.

I don’t yet  have access to the new study referenced at the top, but I have a prediction regarding it.  I bet that among those individuals who demonstrate the most resilience are those who have most successfully made meaning of adversity.  This is not a new idea.  Viktor Frankl and many others have made this case.  How we make-meaning — intellectually, mythologically, religiously, artistically, socially, whatever — is of less consequence than the making itself.

If we are concerned not just with individual resilience but something closer to social resilience — the ability of our neighborhood, community, region or nation to bounce back — then the essential role of meaning-making presents a particular challenge.  What can be quickly discerned from the online dialogue (even more effectively than from typical conversation) are the divergent and contentious sources of meaning-making even in this very small sample.

For most of human history and for most, though not all, of the humans who have experienced that history social meaning has been defined by the family, clan, tribe, or nation in which one found himself or herself.  As a result, there was a broadly shared thesis. Even for reformers and revolutionaries there was a beefy if always morphing target for their antithesis.  The functional absence of this thesis may be the greatest challenge facing us in crafting contemporary social resilience in the United States.  There are exceptions, but in most “communities” we often share little more than proximity.

If this is true — and I will celebrate persuasive arguments that I am mistaken — and  if we seek to be resilient, we must sweep away the illusion of an existing thesis around which we can organize (for resilience or almost anything).  Instead we must start at the beginning with the most fundamental elements of participation, collaboration, and deliberation.  We must stop staring at the flickering shadows on the back of the cave and begin — together, not alone — the difficult, rocky ascent to the light.

(Multiple Assertion Alerts: CODE RED)

(Comments on the prior resilience post by Pace students and others are available at: http://www.hlswatch.com/2010/10/15/resilience-absorb-and-bounce-back/#comments)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 22, 2010 @ 1:53 am

So the unexamined life is not worth living?

Comment by Art Botterell

October 22, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

And no man is an island…

In fact, I wonder whether this might be a case of the nation-state meeting the hierarchy of needs. The geographic nation has historically been efficient for meeting survival, comfort and even some psychological needs. But at the level of self-actualization we see a divergence of meaning-making strategies expressed in various forms of cultural, racial, linguistic, religious, and political fragmentation.

That might explain the rhetorical strategy we see occasionally of instilling fear to reinforce solidarity. By driving folks’ attention downward in Maslow’s ‘stack’ we move them back into frames of mind more amenable to traditional forms of nationalism.

Which brings us back, of course, to the persistent question of “what are we securing, exactly?” The modern construct of the sovereign nation-state is dated, conventionally, to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, although of course elements of it stretch back into earliest history. Which suggests that our present political conventions are neither timeless nor immutable.

But how do we defend the “homeland” without inadvertently setting ourselves in opposition to long-term trends that may actually be improvements over the current arrangements, just as the Peace of Westphalia is now viewed as an improvement over what went before?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 22, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

Art, The current issue of Foreign Policy is focused on the growing role of cities. In Europe most of the great cities (Milan, Barcelona, Hamburg, etc.) also sit at the heart of regional identities and economies that have strengthened even as the reach of the EU has increased. As you suggest there seems to be a pulse toward a post-Westphalian world giving more prominence to the meaningfully local and regional, especially if the effectiveness of the nation-state seems to wane.

I don’t know how much longer the September/October issue will still be the “current issue”, but today you can access the Global Cities special report at:

Comment by Art Botterell

October 22, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

Interesting stuff, Philip. Among other things it calls to mind the long-standing faultline in American culture between the urban and agrarian ideals. That’s a tension that stretches back through our history from our current Red State / Blue State battles to at least the Civil War and arguably even the Revolution: the rural values of loosely-confederated, self-reliant individualism versus the industrial paradigm of tightly-connected urban collectivism.

Thus I’m afraid the idea of refactoring nationalism around urban centers, whatever its objective merits or demerits, will be viewed prima facie as unacceptable if not outright treasonous by a significant number of Americans.

(Meanwhile, we can ponder the role that urban/agrarian split may have played in battles over UASI funds, among other things. And the implication that HS and EM frequently becomes proxies for much deeper social and political dynamics.)

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 23, 2010 @ 7:38 am

With the world fast approaching 25 cities with populations exceeding 10 million from Lagos to Tokyo the urbanization of the world is an almost unexamined dynamic. Perhaps city-states not nation-states is the future. US has 10 cities over 1M and Chine 175 over 1M!

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