The dark side of resilience

It is not enough that we get back up, dust ourselves off, retake the field and give our best the next time. We have to come to terms with the setback itself and be set free from it.

“Fifty years ago, if that man had given me better advice, I would have lived a different -- a better -- life.” That was not what I had anticipated hearing when I asked the octogenarian to tell me about his career!

After all, he had spent most of his life working as an executive in a lucrative industry and was a company man in the way that only those of the greatest generation could be. From my encounters with him, I had assumed he was happy with the way his professional life had unfolded, but it turned out that he was more Willy Loman than Rob Petrie.

As he told his story that day, there was a depth of anger in his voice that I was unaccustomed to hearing. There was a bitterness in him that had been seeded when, just back from the Second World War, he was sent to meet with a career counselor to plan his future. Their conversation had been brief.

In his memory, though, what they discussed and decided that day put him on an irreversible path because, years later, when frustrated with company politics and desperate to change jobs, he found he lacked the credentials to move elsewhere. He blamed years of vocational unhappiness squarely on a man he met once 50 years before.

His story, while sad, is a cautionary tale of sorts. It is fashionable today to speak of the importance of resilience, that vital personal capacity that enables us to take a hit and get back up and give our best once again.

No doubt, the popularity of resilience in business books is an implicit acknowledgement that most of us will experience more professional setbacks than we think we will and that our responses to them will define who we are and how we are perceived as professional people.

In most of the discussion around resilience, though, there is a significant missing piece, highlighted by this octogenarian’s story. He was resilient; he did good work for a good company despite his frustrations. But he was still bound by what had been, and it robbed him of a flourishing, joyful life.

All of this points to the fact that it is not enough that we get back up, dust ourselves off, retake the field and give our best the next time, as if we are human versions of the child’s inflated bop bag that bounces back each time no matter how hard we hit it.

No, we have to come to terms with the setback itself. We must deal with our emotions around it. Learn from it what we can. Be empowered by it if we are able. But ultimately, we must be set free from it.

There are jobs we wish we had taken, and opportunities we wish we had let go by. There are decisions we have made that have brought embarrassment or failure or even termination.

It is easy to look back and be paralyzed by our professional past, but this is one of the great gifts of the Christian tradition: we are given ways of acknowledging the past without being held captive by it. In the way we practice confession and pardon, we recognize failings and regrets, but then there comes a word of grace and a gesture of absolution.

And the past no longer determines the future.