2020 has been a year like no other. It’s unlike any that many of us have experienced in our lifetimes (and hopefully one that we won’t experience again). We’ve literally and figuratively been poked and prodded in 2020, and not just from the COVID-19 tests.
Bushfires, floods, a global pandemic, economic recession, social isolation and dislocation, unrest, growing inequality, and a Black Lives Matter movement are some of the major national and global issues we’ve faced. And then there are the personal struggles that sit with and alongside them.
Suffering because of physical and mental health issues, losing loved ones and not being able to say goodbye with our usual cultural practices, isolation from family and friends, job losses, the shutdown of our playgrounds, community groups and events and all the sadness, loneliness, fear, uncertainty and grief that wraps around them.
It’s been hard. It’s been exhausting. Experiencing adverse events won’t ever be easy and when you’re in the thick of the absolute unknown, it can feel like you’re drowning.
Suffering sometimes irritates us, like the aftermath of an annoying mosquito, at other times it burrows just beneath the surface like a tick, and sometimes it embeds deeply into our souls like a parasite; we don’t realise it’s what’s making us sick until we’re seriously unwell, and then recovery is very painful and slow.
How we deal with these scenarios of course differs for different people. As Charlie Mackesy astutely says in his beautifully illustrated book, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, “One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things”.
And in this sense, 2020 has also been a remarkable year.
I’ve watched with amazement as our care workers (healthcare, aged care, disability) turned up to care for people who aren’t their families; our supply chain of workers kept our supermarket shelves stocked (even while fighting the hoarding fear responsive behaviour); our council and emergency services workers continued to pick up our garbage, keep our streets safe and clean and support us in tough times; our parents supported their kid’s education from home; families supported loved ones struggling with addiction, challenging behaviour, suicidal thoughts and major health issues; friends and neighbours looked after each other with care packages, shopping and connection; people (from many industries who were lucky enough to keep working) worked harder than ever with fewer resources, higher demands and in significantly changed contexts.
We’ve seen community groups rally around the environment, more pets rescued from shelters, people reconnecting with country, using green spaces, our remarkable Australian bush regenerate with new growth amongst the charred landscape. We’ve seen people who were rough sleepers taken off the streets and put into safe, warm, accommodation. We’ve seen our for-purpose sector collaborate and rally, despite decreasing resources and higher demands.
Through government stimulus supports we’ve seen people’s jobs saved, charities and businesses supported, and we’ve seen people who are looking for work and previously below the poverty line finally get enough money to eat three meals a day and to better look after themselves and their children.
We’ve seen and felt the joy of simple but enormous pleasures: being able to see loved ones again, the barrier tape being removed from children’s playgrounds and public spaces reopen (the local community pool reopening was one of my favourite COVID moments).
All of these remarkable moments we’ve witnessed are a testament to the people, places and resources we have around us. How much we struggle and suffer and how we bounce back are too.
This is why resilience - which has dominated our language, become the name of organisation and government initiatives around the world (in Australia we have a forthcoming National Resilience, Relief and Recovery Agency, Ireland has a Recovery and Resilience Plan, Canada a Resilient Recovery Report, the UK Government speeches about Building a Clean and Resilient Recovery), been the topic of international reports, corporate reports, HBR articles, and podcasts - is both so important, but also so misunderstood.
Resilience isn’t about being tough enough. Resilience is the “capacity of human beings to overcome extreme adversity and to show positive adaptation in the face of that adversity” (Schoon and Bynner 2003: 21). It’s about adjusting and evolving and bouncing back (or forward) from adverse events.
Many studies from many different fields have explored what this means and how it’s achieved (see Salignac et al., 2019 for an overview). Importantly, resilience is not a binary of something we have or don’t have. It changes overtime and it needs to be learned and replenished. But, most importantly of all, it is a misnomer to see resilience as only our internal response to situations or our internal emotional ability to cope.
Yes, this is important, but it’s only one part of the story. Critically, resilience is only possible, if we have the internal AND external resources to draw on. As Salginac, Marjolin, Reeve and I (2019) state, “Resilience is heavily dependent on access to appropriate resources”. And not everyone starts from the same point in regard to what resources they can and cannot access.
Going back to my mozzie, tick and parasite analogy, some of us will get bitten and some of us won't, but we’ll all have different reactions and be affected in some way. And it’s the insect repellent, the support to safely remove the tick, the treatment we receive if it makes us sick, the ongoing support to find and treat the parasite and the reassurance from loved ones that we’ll be supported and that this moment will pass that helps our resilience.
It’s the love, warmth and support that wraps around us from our friends, families, community organisations, work-mates, charities, businesses and governments that will mark the extent of our ability to bounce back and recover. Resilience is about our reaction to situations and our ability to cope, but it’s ONLY possible with the appropriate, accessible and acceptable people, places and support structures around us.
We’ve seen just how much of an important protective and recovery factor these supports can be throughout 2020.
Let’s hope for a smoother and less bumpy ride in 2021, but whatever it brings, we’re going to need our resilience buckets to be filled, replenished and refilled again by appropriate and accessible internal and external resources. We will continue to rely on and need to work for the connections between us, our friends, families and colleagues.
We need equitable access to appropriate resources and supports, and as a decade of inquiries and reviews have recommended, our non-profits will continue to need adequate funding, supports, workforces and collaboration within and across sectors to continue to effectively play their part.
Since hope is also part of resilience, here’s my message of hope for the future:
May we all have the belonging, love, people, supports and services we need to be at peace, to be safe, to have stable housing, to have our bellies full of nutritious food and clean water, to learn, to connect to country, to have clean air and green landscapes, to be grateful, find moments of joy, to contribute to society, and have the opportunity to thrive and support others to do so.
And, as we head into the Aussie summer, may we have enough resources to keep our mozzies, ticks, and parasites at bay or to bounce back if they strike.
CEO, Centre for Social Impact