How can you ask about tomorrow/we ain’t got a word to say…

Speed of the Sound of Resilience

Done. If someone asks what my ‘word’ is for 2022: Done. Done quietly missing people, and opportunities. Done pretending things are sort-of-okay. Done suffering anyone gladly. Done trying to normalize the idea of ‘unprecedented’ (hello, ‘normal’ is the actual antonym here). Done working so so hard to keep our voice and demeanor and hearts softened in the face of a brutal onslaught of trauma, loss, division and denial.

It was something of a struggle even to reflect on the last year; though it had promise and was less of a dumpster fire than the previous year, it still defied neat description. And then I watched an episode of “Around the World in 80 Days”, and had some clarity. It’s the episode where Fogg (the troubled protagonist) is on a train in Italy, and there is a sick child aboard, and a bridge ahead is out. With no time to second guess, Fogg convinces the engineers that the train can make it over, since the tracks are still bolted to the crumbled structure — but it can only bear the weight of the engine and one car, carrying only critical passengers. To further lighten the load across the crumbling infrastructure of the bridge, most of the coal was dumped out. Inch by inch, the train creaked over the gap, with nothing below the tracks but open air, finally arriving on solid ground on the other side. With no fuel left, Fogg and his associates pulled wood from the train car roof and walls, frantically feeding it into the engine to burn so they could make it to their destination. When they finally pulled into Brindisi, only a shell of the train car remained, a skeletal outline of what it had once been, and the last of the floorboards supporting the sick child. So unprecedented, so uncommon, so extraordinary.

That’s it: made it thus far, through extraordinary circumstances. Insert all metaphors about nearly burning it all down, being a barely-recognizable version of a former self, relying on mathematical data and scientific knowledge, keeping your speed steady and your head down, eyes on the horizon, feeling the rumble beneath the floor, trusting the bolts to hold. That was our 2021. And, just like Fogg rolling into Brindisi, we cannot fathom having to solve at that level again, just to survive; there must be a better way. Even our resilience is stretched beyond it’s capacity for resilience. Here we are, clinging to a sagging framework, mighty and mighty exhausted.

Maybe the happy truth about this new year is that we are saying so. ‘Cannot-even’ is not a catch-phrase, it is a true description. If you are among the brave ones, saying aloud that you are exhausted from being in charge of everything — all day, every day — and struggle to describe the relief found in a break from making decisions, I hear you. We all need space to sit for a minute, and let things unfold (or not), solve a five-letter word puzzle in five tries (or less), watch a silly dance video, to hand over the wheel, let a trusted co-pilot navigate for a bit, to notice the sky and the trees, pet the dog, regroup, reframe, reassess, just freaking retire from being so damn resilient for so long. We are done, hear us in our done-ness.

Oh, it may be a laudable trait, but here’s the thing about resiliency: though by definition it is elastic, it will certainly snap from overuse. They key is to rest it before it cracks. So many of us have heard how greaty-great we’ve been at adapting and reformulating, pivoting and flexing (all words I am willing to retire, tbh.). The demands we’ve made, over and over, on our own resiliency each result in tiny tiny fractures, and the whole infrastructure is worn down from the burden of continually snapping back.

Of late, our social outreach is built on resiliency and empathy, compassion and willingness. Every single one of those attributes are fluid, ebbing and flowing for each person, depending on so many incalculable factors. While commendable as traits, they are not worthy substitutes for social systems. Reviewing structures like the length of the workweek, the availability and affordability of childcare, access to support, fair benefits and livable wages, protocols around health and safety at every level, all receive varying levels of pushback, but here is what they all have in common: they make for a more valued, committed, and (spoiler alert) resilient workforce. Actually, the word we might be searching for here is ‘humane’. Fact: when we hit the limits of what is humanly possible, we will snap — and that can look like any number of things. Leaving, quitting, crying, yelling, swearing, stewing, steaming, scheming — perhaps not the best qualities of the human experience, but quite real. People tested to their very limits are generally at the edge of not just what they can stand, but in what they can offer others — be it customers or students or colleagues or family or friends or communities.

We may feel done, but we are not done-for, or defeated. A steady chorus of voices is beginning to be heard. Our refrain may be that we are done, but our voices also indicate we want to succeed, despite the odds. Instead of rejoicing we got the train over the broken trestle, we are saying, ‘Holy crap, how about fixing the damn bridge, or re-routing the tracks, instead of expecting us to tackle that impossible task again?’. What do we want? Sustainable solutions. When do we want them? Now would be good.

Look to systems redefining support. Hybrid schedules, flex flex-time, mental health resources, advocacy at every level. Look for models that support your wellness and the wellness of everyone in the space; maybe it is masks and vaccine cards and distancing and timed entry and limited capacity, all in the name of live theater or sports or dining out or shopping or travel. So many of us are done — done with fingers-crossed and hoping-for-the-best — largely because we know better. Knowing better is the best impetus for doing better, and who we treat best begins with our own selves. When we are okay, we have the energy and wherewithal and (yes) resilience to help others find a less-broken-road forward, too. And (this is the best part) we also will have the energy and wherewithal to say, ‘that system is too broken to be of service’. Thank you, next.

We cannot fix everything, but we can fix our own self, even just a little bit. We can offer rest to each other, and know that every one of us in the trenches is at the edge of the edge. Check on your people. Take the lead for a minute. Rest. Sit. Snack. Cook. Read. Share a funny story or video or silly text, bring them coffee or biscuits, shovel the walk, walk the dog, fill the birdfeeders, hike the trails, take the backroads, watch the sunrise, gather the fallen branches and build an enormous bonfire. Just don’t burn the whole thing down. We’ve been tested, but we have not rested, and it’s time to change that up. From now on, it’s both/and: oh sure, we’ll be tested again, but now we know better and we are finding space and asking for rest, too. What difference will that make? Well, I don’t know, but I hope we are about to find out.

photo cred: PBS Masterpiece “Around the World in 80 Days”

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