Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 12, 2013

Resilience is the act of coming to the aid of those in need.

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on March 12, 2013

Three weeks ago a fire destroyed a lot of things my family and I used to own.

Life goes on, fortunately.

We are now in the recovery phase of managing our personal disaster.

When I’ve talked with colleagues about work related issues during the past three weeks the conversation frequently turns to the fire — usually at the end of whatever we’re talking about.

“How are you doing?” I’m asked.

I am unable to express how engulfingly supportive people have been to me and my family. But when I am asked how I’m doing, I really don’t know the answer.

My unthinking analytical default is to parse the sentence and ask, “How am I doing what?”

But that would be a jerk response. I know the question is meant in a socially sincere context. It deserves an equally sincere response.

“I’m fine, thanks,” doesn’t cut it because it is untrue.

“I’m devestated,” also doesn’t work, for the same reason.

I’m left with selecting something from the broad middle between stiff upper lip and what my son calls a pity party response.

I’ve discovered, however, that at least with homeland security folks, I can say, “Thanks for asking. I’m being resilient.”

I’m not sure what I mean when I say that, but it feels like an authentic response.


I think I first came across the word resilient (as I’m latching on to it) in Steve Flynn’s 2007 book The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation. Since then, oceans of words have been poured into explaining what resilience is, how to do it, how to be it, and how to measure it.  Individuals can be resilient, and so can communities and nations and economies.   There are very simple definitions of resilience in the literature and tortuously complicated definitions. But I am increasingly aware of the chasm between the language of resilience and the experience of it.

I’ve started asking first responders I know what their experience of resilience has been. Not their experience of the concept, but their experience of the experience of resilience.

I had a work-related conversation a few days ago with a police official I know, Pat Walsh. After the work part was finished, we started talking about resilience.

Here’s a note Pat sent me on Monday. I like what he wrote.  I had not seen it expressed quite like this in the resilience literature.   It resonated with my current experience.  I have his permission to share it.


I thought about the resiliency question after I hung up and I still had a mile or so to go [on my walk] so I started to think. My out of breath thoughts are sometimes the best, or so I think.

I have seen people lose everything in fires, accidents or to violence. I am always amazed at how calm the women in the situation are once they have their head wrapped around the situation. But then the things that make or break those affected is always interesting to me.

Some can handle the actual incident, but the aftermath, insurance claim, rebuilding, restarting is the last straw and is what actually breaks them.

Other people are a wreck with the event, but healing for them is the process of rebuilding.

I do not have the answer to why this is, but I have a hypothesis.

I think the people who handle trauma are the ones who are surrounded by family and friends (or kind strangers). We are all self reliant and stubbornly hang on to the idea that we can do it without the help of others (or we think we need too).

I wish I had a dime for every time someone said, “Why did this happen? What is the point?”

Well if you believe in God I would say the point is so you learn this is a fleeting life, and so that others can be tested to step up and help their fellow man.

If you are not a believer, I would say, the point is so others may learn what it is like to stop thinking about themselves and help another in need. It is in helping others that we are most fulfilled.

We can teach resilience all day long, but at the end of the day it is how one reacts to the incident and how others come to the aid. Both benefit, some more than others.

[A firefighter friend] did a video for [a course]…. It is worth watching. In his video he expresses disgust with himself for turning away a homeless man who wanted water. It haunts him to this day. I have those demons as well, and I would say we all do.

So in short, resilience is the act of coming to the aid of those in need.


Pat wrote about individual resilience. I want to believe the idea can be expanded to communities and to a nation.

Maybe it already is.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 12, 2013 @ 5:32 am

Pat Walsh writes: “… resilience is the act of coming to the aid of those in need.”

I will agree, especially if the actor recognizes his/her own neediness.

Viktor Frankl, and plenty of others, have observed and to my satisfaction demonstrated that resilience is a function of being in relationship with others and responding to our relationships with self-giving. It is from the dialectic (not quite the right word) of self-giving relationships that the most resilient self and community emerges.

Comment by Dan OConnor

March 12, 2013 @ 7:30 am

It is interesting that resilience has a relational aspect to it that is often overlooked. No one certainly “goes it” alone but it can sure feel that way.

I often return to my familial roots to understand resilience in terms of history and necessity. I try and grasp the gravity of a situation to have people with nothing stuffed in a bottom of a ship heading to the “land of opportunity” but that land was entirely too hostile and not Emma Lazarus’ ideal. Yet, there was opportunity. Or those left in destitute in the 1930’s only to find themselves on some strange Island in the middle of nowhere fighting “for their country”. Then to return home and 5 years later be “re volunteered” to fight in another country not as much for their country but against an ideology. Then to have it repeated a decade later.

On the one hand, our experiences make us who we are. The ephemeral movement from one to another builds a body of time called life. They are intangible in real time but highly tangible in reflection. The consolidation of experience, relationships, expectations, and the bonds that hold these memories together are the real stuff…but those are for recall.

The loss of physical tokens of these experiences becomes the focus I think because they’re the tangible proof that the experience did occur. The books, the pictures, the tokens and treasures of a lifetime are the tangible infrastructure(s) that support our memories. We know our memories are manifestations of experiences and subject to a host of stimuli. And they not be all together accurate, much to our chagrin.

The artifacts are the proof that all our memories are not conjured or imagined but real. I think that is the feeling Chris speaks about…not too sad but sad nonetheless. Extremely grateful not more was lost, but plenty sure was. That balance of loss and reflection creates angst in that, we operate…some better than others, but we “do” and in that doing is resilience.

I think to a certain degree that’s what the relational element of resilience is. Clearly, artifacts have been lost forever, casualties of combustion. However, the legacies of those artifacts live on vicariously through all those who we value more than mere acquaintances. One never knows their impact on observers…hence be authentic. We are guests in other peoples’ lives…act accordingly.

Nationally and waxing philosophically, I believe we have over the last two generations forgotten what got us to “here”. It wasn’t one individual person or calamity but a collective response to many challenges. If we do not maintain those artifacts of the intangible, those ephemeral moments of character, then we will fail, collectively and look at one another and ask “what happened?”

Our humanity is challenged every day and what we do in those challenges shapes character.

It’s ironic what the definition of character is, according to Merriam Webster;

1a : a conventionalized graphic device placed on an object as an indication of ownership, origin, or relationship b : a graphic symbol (as a hieroglyph or alphabet letter) used in writing or printing c : a magical or astrological emblem d : alphabet e (1) : writing, printing (2) : style of writing or printing (3) : cipher f : a symbol (as a letter or number) that represents information; also : a representation of such a symbol that may be accepted by a computer
2a : one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual
b (1) : a feature used to separate distinguishable things into categories; also : a group or kind so separated
(2) : the detectable expression of the action of a gene or group of genes
(3) : the aggregate of distinctive qualities characteristic of a breed, strain, or type
c : the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation

Character; a physical product that converts or is transformed to a behavior or trait. Resilience is very much like character. It is easy to be stoic and dismissive of disruptive events in life. It takes more courage, in my opinion, to weigh those disruptions and balance the value of what was lost and what was gained.

Reflection without growth is useless. Reflection with action is resilience.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 12, 2013 @ 8:19 am

Great post and comments! IMO resilence is a two part concept. First, wanting to come to the aid of others and being capable of doing so. Second, doing it!

I have found in many disasters and crises that many are willing to help but lack the capability.

FEMA is almost always willing to help now but often lacks the capability to do so.


And always remember that the Japanese response was in a largely contaminated arena. Is the US prepared to so operate and can it do so? My answer is a qualified NO!

Witness my suggestion to FEMA and NRC and the WH and the Congress that REPP [radiological emergency preparedness program] be transferred from a partnership between FEMA and NRC to one between EPA and NRC.

Comment by Michael Brady

March 12, 2013 @ 9:44 am


I’m very glad you and your family are recovering from your loss. I propose that resilience plays out differently as it scales. I like the idea that at the individual level resilience includes the ability to request and accept help in difficult times. The ability and willingness of family, friends, and neighbors to assist others in a crisis acts to make the community more resilient. As we step up to the city, county, or even state level resilience might take the form of flexible decision-making and acting to apply available resources locally in close to real-time. At the highest levels resilience ought to include the feature of failing gracefully, such that most of the mesh of distributed actors can continue to respond even when some of the nodes are busy, off-line, or destroyed – even the titular head of the organzation.

Comment by Sally Chapman

March 12, 2013 @ 10:34 am

May I suggest that resilience is the mindset of looking forward. I just had my house robbed last week. Of course I was furious but, that is just regret. Ironically, one of the things they took was the emergency cash funds that we had as part of our emergency preparedness.

Resilience for me was forward action; police report, insurance claims, and new locks.

I wish you all the best Chris.

Comment by Quin

March 12, 2013 @ 11:06 am


I’d put a slightly different spin on this. I think Pat’s definition of resilience is might be more a means to resilience rather than resilence itself. Resilience as an ends being acceptance.

The act of coming to aid those in need after one deal’s with their own loss is really an act of bringing one’s self into the present. We cannot alter what has happened, but we can always change what will happen. These acts of kindness and aid, which come naturally to first responders (who probably make up a good portion of your blog audience) are their own way to bring themselves into the present; their primary tools being focus and concentration which no longer fixate on the past but look to the future. It is the act of aid that leads to acceptance, acceptance being defined in this case as a focus on the future, not on past events.

For example, I just read this article at lunch http://abcnews.go.com/US/joyful-book-good-bye-tapped-thumb-iphone/story?id=18701481

When Susan was faced with the horrible truth she had ALS, and a finite time for the use of her faculties, she didn’t dither on the diagnosis, she looked to the future. She has written what may be a remarkable book, spending her precious time in the moment with family and with her thoughts focused on them and on her present condition. Her case is even more special in that she had both a catastrophic diagnosis in the past, but also a certain terrible fate for her future, so being in the present, changing only what she could control in that moment, is her path to resilience. But her experience is just one way, each of us has their own. For another, read this touching obituary of Maurice ‘Bo’ Smith. http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2009/dec/01/maurice-bo-smith-world-war-ii-fighter-pilot-outdoo/

A Marine WWII pilot, it was ocean diving that led his path to resilience and a wonderful life of teaching our children.

Whether it is the last stage of Kubler-Ross grief or the even the simple Serenity Prayer, I think in their common elements of acceptance we can get a better understanding of what our personal paths to resilience are. The next question, to which I’ll leave others to answer, is whether the lessons of personal resilience can apply to larger groups or entities.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 12, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

Quin: You addressed Chris specifically, but I will offer two reactions.

First, in my experience sometimes a capacity is both process and outcome, means and ends. Several of the most powerful human capacities seems to fall into this very dynamic category. I think resilience is one. Dane Egli has characterized resilience as an “active virtue”, which carries this implication.

Second, where a neighborhood, organization, community, or other social unit demonstrates a cultural predisposition to being in relationship, recognizing common needs, and actively helping one another — perhaps, to use your preferred word, accepting the reality of our shared situation — then there is likely to be considerable social resilience when subjected to stress.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 12, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

Professor Daniel Mileti first coined the term “Theraputic Community” and studied community resilience in the form of cooperation and collaboration.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

March 13, 2013 @ 3:54 am


A wonderful post and shared comments indeed! I am sharing this with as many folks as I can and Dan, how beautifully expressed! Now in the waning years as sunset is more clearly seen and as these senior years realize that all these treasured books and photographs and other unless someone there to bequeath to and who would truly cherish…it is the dash as has been said between birth and death which counts and how we live and express ourselves and strive to contribute to family and community which portray many things about us as well as our resilience. When God created each of us with such similarity, yet distinctive indeed as individuals, God created his best work among the universes, however despite our evolution, our sinful and dysfunctional and self-lusting mannerisms are so disheartening and to all our demise as history will again show as the future looks so promising from a technological innovative promise and so desperate and forlorn.



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