Why Do We Need to Teach About Resilience?

Spertus Institute President Dr. Dean P. Bell Addresses the Importance of Teaching About Resilience


In addition to his role as Spertus Institute’s President & CEO, Dr. Dean P. Bell also holds a faculty appointment as Professor of Jewish History. Widely published as an historian and thought leader, he is the author of Interreligious Resilience: Interreligious Leadership in a Pluralistic World (co-written with Dr. Michael S. Hogue).

Over the past years, as the pandemic and social and political crises have challenged us, both individually and collectively, we have sought out and spoken about resilience. At Spertus Institute, we have integrated long-standing work on vulnerability and resilience into our leadership training, professional programs, and graduate courses.

Grounded in a project I’m working on with my colleague Dr. Mike Hogue (Professor at the Meadville Lombard Theological School and my co-investigator in the Religion, Vulnerability, and Resilience Project), we have differentiated between simple resilience—a return to the status quo, a bounce back to pre-crisis—and complex resilience, which allows us to learn, grow, and adapt. Complex resilience teaches us to apply new-found skills and perspectives to yet unknown challenges.

We aren’t alone in this exploration. Even the business world has dipped into the subject of resilience, with studies highlighting the efficacy of resilience, often emphasizing the key role played by relationships and networks. Recent articles, for example, have stressed the ways in which resilience allows us to adjust to and manage changes in markets, understand people and systems in specific contexts, cultivate the skills and confidence to persevere and grow, and develop our ability to find meaning and maintain perspective amidst difficult circumstances.

But the concept of resilience is not without its critics.

For some, resilience emphasizes adaptation, but adaptation on a relatively small scale tied to extant structures and experiences. Some critics see resilience as favoring existing power structures and valuing people primarily in relation to their potential for economic productivity or their current social standing. The result is that efforts at resilience are sometimes unwitting dupes to inequity. In our quest to protect and advance the interests of some groups, we invariably disregard or worsen the situation of others, typically groups and communities that are already vulnerable. Examples include the responses to natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, which often failed to consider the needs or welfare of all citizens.

A famous passage from the tractate Taanit (23a) of the Babylonian Talmud relates well to this issue:

One day, he was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed.

Honi said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? The man said: I myself found a world of carab trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

This text is regularly cited in Jewish discussions about responses to climate change in order to call attention to the fact that the actions we take today have impact on future generations. It suggests that we have an ethical obligation to our descendants. And yet, as Spertus Institute Dean and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Keren Fraiman reminds me, the important value of future planning can run against the value of addressing the needs of people today. What, for example, would we recommend if the choice we faced was between feeding hungry people today by planting a tree that will produce fruit quickly or planting a tree that will not bear fruit for many years for the benefit of future generations? In such a case, a challenge may arise that cannot be addressed by adapting within the system — the entire system might have to be completely reconsidered or altered to create space for a decision that does not pit these decisions against one another.

There is another, interwoven critique of resilience that has emerged from discussions of ecology and the environment, especially climate change. Some have asserted that the Anthropocene — a new geological age characterized by the unprecedented impact of humans on the earth — has provided a depth and acceleration of change in the world (the environment as well as its impact on humans and human society) that cannot be addressed by the concept of resilience at all. It asserts that we have changed the world so profoundly that it is impossible to respond in any meaningful way within the current contexts and understanding of life as we know it. In this case, resilience provides tools that help us respond to external conditions and challenges, but given the enormity and unpredictability of such challenges, resilience can only provide tools and solutions to some conditions. It helps to buy us time, but it is incapable of truly redressing the multivalent and complex problems of today and tomorrow, providing us with a false sense of security or control.

At the heart of these critiques of resilience are two issues for us to consider.

First, in our efforts to adapt and grow we must always be cognizant of the impact of our actions and strive to consider how our actions will impact others. This is the equity concern, which has reared its head in many ways over the past year, including the responses to systemic racism and the inequities of access to resources and medical treatment.

Second, if we are to achieve a level of complex resilience that can be effective in responding to an unprecedented rate of change, we must explore solutions to problems in ways that go beneath the surface and beyond immediate needs. We must examine underlying concerns and address the deep, profound, even wicked, problems of our day and the future. Such skills, orientations, and considerations operate at individual, organizational, communal, and societal levels in complex and truly nuanced ways.

It remains unclear if the notion of resilience assumed in recent criticisms — resilience as primarily adaptive in nature — is the only or even the best definition of resilience with which to grapple. Mike Hogue suggests that perhaps we should think about resilience more as resistance and responsibility than mere adaptation. In the end, therefore, I believe that resilience can continue to be a valuable tool to help us adapt, learn, and improve. But the critiques of resilience force us to consider the ways in which we adapt, learn, and improve — the implications, the (un)intentional side-effects, and the need for radical (in the best sense of the word) innovations for the greater good.

Our work at Spertus Institute is centered in the idea of high-impact Jewish learning, learning that provides the tools for real, important, and positive change in the world. Our explorations of complex resilience teach adaptation, as well as deep problem solving, responsibility, and resistance to doing things the same way merely because that is the way we have done them before. This work will advance and improve our programs, our institution, and the many people we serve and impact along the way.

Area of Focus: New Approaches for New Times