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Are we ever resilient? Are we ever normal?

How to find resilience and normality after losing so much? (photo by Ilan Kelman).

So much has been written about 'resilience' that it could mean almost anything. Reams of erudite academic articles and speeches grace resilience science. Piles of manuals and checklists offer resilience advice to businesses and other practitioners.

How useful and useable is this material for people affected by crises, disasters, and emergencies? Does it really assist in reducing disaster risks including adapting to climate change?

Let's find out by heading into an affected community, to talk to those who have suffered, but who now are presumably back to normal. After all, they need resilience. I, as a resilience expert, could provide it. Let's bring them all together, in a crowded and damaged hall, to listen to me talk about resilience and to advise them about what they should be doing to achieve resilience.

First, I must define the word. In doing so, I alienate those who disagree with my definition. I disaffect those whose profession or discipline takes a different view. I irritate even more who do not speak English or any language in which the word 'resilience', and the cultural construct of it, exists.

Having now turned off those whom I could certainly help if they weren't so annoyed at me, I proceed with popular interpretations of implementing resilience. Popular, at least, within certain, narrow, academic and practitioner confines.

I launch into detailed expostulations of adaptive capacity, consilience (is no one pro-silience?), integral theory, panarchy, social-ecological systems, socio-environmental systems, and transformation. I follow up with the many limitations and numerous criticisms of those terms. There is just so much abstruseness to mention!

People wander off, back to their crops, livestock, fishing, and homes. They post on Facebook and twitter that they do not understand what 'resilience' means or achieves, nor what exactly I am doing in their community.

Confound it, now what? Did none of THESE people read my articles? Don't THEY realise how important I am, I mean, how important my resilience work is?

Unfortunately, I am stuck here. Nothing to do except to fish with them and join them in the fields. I might even be forced to learn some of the local language and culture, to glean a sense of their needs and perspectives. I might start to see how these people manage without 'resilience' in their vocabulary and lives.

I learn that the school destroyed by the landslide was sited there because a rich person from the capital (with a doctorate in development studies) funded it, insisting that their own land be used as part of their generous gift. I see that the hazard map in the town hall was altered so that the land owned by the mayor's friends, now with inundated houses, would not be zoned differently or lose value.

I blame my objective, superior observations on local culture, typical corruption, and different values. Then, I realise that the situation here mirrors political machinations back home.

Yet the people inspiringly carry on. They build the new school away from the slopes (have they checked for subsidence and other hazards?). They re-house those who lost homes to floods (but why not the pre-disaster homeless?). They still earn income and put food on the table, albeit less than before.

They are poor and they lost a lot, but they bounced back to normal. They smile at me and seem happy. An idyllic little village with sweet people. Perhaps I should transfer this resilience to my own community where a bunch of whiners/customers always wants someone to do something for them.

I am soon told, because I missed it, that continuing the daily routine, despite having lost half their family and half their income, is not so much resilience, but necessity. They are hungry each day and do not wish to lose more of their family.

They know the value of education, including for children who lost their parents or caregivers, so they need a school. Despite their own losses, teachers go everyday to teach, to avoid compounding those losses.

After fishing, farming, office work, and other jobs, they put in a few hours of reconstruction each evening, helping each other, because no one turned up to assist. They buy building materials with loans, savings, and remittances, because over half the relief supplies and donations were siphoned off before arriving.

They are exhausted, frustrated, and grieving. They deal with it because they have to. Is that resilience? Is it possible to 'return to normal' after the loss of a community or the loss of a child?

They do not want to put in the effort to reply to my emails and online survey asking them these questions. Instead, they live day-to-day, they breathe day-to-day, they cry day-to-day, and they continue with what they have day-to-day.

Which sort of sounds like me without the losses. Until I experience disaster.

Hmm. Perhaps resilience (and vulnerability) are part of being a human being and part of having a community. Sometimes there is less, sometimes there is more. Sometimes we feel more of one, sometimes less.

We are never quite part of the 'normal life'. Is anyone ever 'normal'?

I suppose that I have learned--they have taught me--how much is concealed or bypassed by resilience and normality.

Resilience for what/whom, to what/whom, and of what/whom? Who sets the agenda, who acts or is forced to act on the agenda, who reaps the rewards, and who pays the costs? What is normal and why would we want or seek it?

It is not about dictating use or avoidance of 'resilience' or 'normal'. It is about discovering when it does and does not contribute. It is about the roles which resilience and normality do and do not play, the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of words, discourses, and abstract buzzwords.

And it is not just for them: those others who are far away and not like me. It is also for us: ourselves and our own communities. For we all go through the reality of vulnerability and disaster.

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