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Critical Resilience

This piece was originally published on 14 October 2021 by OEB Insights, the newsletter for the Online Educa Berlin conference.


Many years ago when my father was still alive, he used to tell me to keep my chin up. I came out of the closet and divorced the person I’d loved most in the world for ten years. “Keep your chin up.” I struggled through graduate school while working and paying bills, student loans growing beyond numbers that even made sense. “Keep your chin up.” Heartbreak. Job losses. New relationships and their inevitable end. Seismic changes to my family. Even my dad’s own alcoholism. “Keep. Your. Chin up.”

This was my father’s way of teaching me resilience and hope. Resilience and hope are perpetually tied together, feeding each other every dark and difficult morning, at every roadblock, at the crossroads where they meet defeat and despair.

My father was profoundly hopeful. Never the cynic, always imaginative about the possibilities of his own life. His was the hope of a pop song, the dappled dream that sustains so many in Hollywood and New York, the plan that, just around the corner from Wednesday or Thursday, will become reality. I was eight and my parents still married when he told me about the novel he was writing. The novel that, by the time I was eighteen and I’d graduated high school, had become the seed of a screenplay. The screenplay that, when I was thirty-eight, I found sitting among unpaid bills on his rolltop desk after he died.

Alcoholism took his life. But day after day, year after year for at least thirty years, he worked on that one story. He never stopped believing the story could become something people read, a bestseller, or a movie that might see him one day walking the red carpet. He never lost hope. One could say, “he kept his chin up.” His resilience and his hope were etched on those pages, even as his defeat and despair were evident in the disarray of his life.

Paulo Freire writes that “‘My hope is not enough!’ No, my hope is necessary, but it is not enough. Alone, it does not win. But without it, my struggle will be weak and wobbly. We need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water” (Pedagogy of Hope, 2). Hope, he says, “is so important to our existence, individual and social, that we must take every care not to experience it in a mistaken form, and thereby allow it to slip into hopelessness and despair” (3). Inside these quotes lies a wicked balance. Hope on the razor’s edge of hopelessness, with only our criticality to keep us from tumbling over that edge. “Critical” hope, Freire calls it. A hope that knows the world it confronts rather than looking glassily forward, wishful without a grounding in practice.

If hope and resilience are married, and there is a critical hope, then there must also be a critical resilience, just as there must be a “resilience” we experience in a mistaken form, which threatens to slip into defeat. A friend of mine spoke of this latter resilience, that which is mistaken for critical resilience. He said to me: “I don’t see myself as resilient. I don’t get up every day ready to take on new challenges, despite the setbacks, despite my disability. I get up every day and keep working because I didn’t die whilst I slept.”

In these words, my friend is expressing that one person’s resilience is no more than another person’s dogged resignation; that, as long as he lives and as long as there is work to be done, he will get up each day and keep working. But this is a resilience that, at any moment’s notice, can slip into despair. Dogged resignation, or keeping your chin up, has its place in the world, can get us through many difficult times—has, I would argue, gotten us through the first years of this pandemic—but resilience, critical resilience, must be something else.

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When I think about resilience, I think first of the way that the concept has been misused, or at least misunderstood. In academe and business, I think resilience has been appropriated from those whose lives require it by those privileged enough to pontificate about it. I think it has been stolen, much like the ideas of decolonization and equity, in order to spur a dialogue that only results in a.) a rubric for successful resilience, and b.) a lot of back-patting by those who would like to call themselves resilient. Who would like to see their troubles as metonyms for others’ troubles. The rhetoric of resilience is, in so many ways, nothing more than metonymic, standing in for an argument for the status quo.

After a catastrophe like the COVID-19 pandemic (and I say “after” with extreme caution as every light at the end of the tunnel so far has turned out to be a torch in the darkness), the resilience we hope for, or that so many earnestly need, is a return to normal. We want a party at the end of this horrible thing we’ve all been through, a celebration of our resilience, a new New Year’s Eve or Mardi Gras, a reason to throw caution to the wind because we have been so cautious for so very long. Resilience, the grit we’ve shown, needs a payoff. And that payoff is the normal, the status quo we so cherished without ever knowing how much.

This resilience offers us a promise of closure. We accomplished the thing, we made it through the trial, we graduated, we lived through the divorce, we didn’t die when so many around us did die. We wait for the thing to pass. We welcome the chance to rest. We long for the labour of working under the pressure of the unimaginable to ease. So we can shop without a mask, or start dating again, or get back to Puerto Vallarta. We summoned our resilience, and we deserve a reward.

In truth, though, resilience is not something one has. Resilience is something one does. And doing it once changes behavior ongoingly. That person who does resilience is not bearing down, not pushing through, not “getting it done”—they are changing the landscape of what is possible.

To do resilience is to recognize that nothing stays the same. When the world around us changes radically, resilience is the willingness to engage in the new. Resilience is not persistence. It is not grit. It is creativity, criticality, engagement, and imagination. The resilient person knows when they are tired, knows when they can’t take another step—and what makes them resilient is not that they take the next step, but that they reimagine what stepping looks like, they recognize the power and usefulness of being tired, the reason for it. Resilience is productive, generative, and blasphemous.

Why blasphemous? Critical resilience does no looking back, no reminiscing on the structures and policies and practices that came before the catastrophe. Critical resilience recognizes, even before the catastrophe, that those structures and policies and practices never would hold against the unexpected. The critically resilient person has always relied more on creativity, community, and care—those human characteristics that are needed during a catastrophe like this pandemic, and that were needed before, and that will be necessary after—instead of placing any faith in the way things have always been done. The critically resilient person is always resilient, because the world is always unstable. Because what is not known is so much greater than what is known, and holds far more potential too.

Once upon a time, bell hooks left to go to school at a majority white university. Before she became the bell hooks who wrote Teaching to Transgress, Teaching Community, and other volumes of stories that are not how white people measure education, she left to go to college and her mother told her: “You can take what the white people have to offer, but you do not have to love them.”

In “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” hooks takes her mother’s words as a caution against conformity.

“She was saying that it is not necessary to give yourself over to them to learn … she knew that I might be faced again and again with situations where I would be ‘tried,’ made to feel as though a central requirement of my being accepted would mean participation in this system of exchange to ensure my success, my ‘making it.’”

Or, even more to the point: “She was speaking about colonization and the reality of what it means to be taught in a culture of domination by those who dominate.”

The way I interpret this—from my lens as a gay, disabled man, but also a white man—is that the resilience hooks enacts through her going to school is her remaining Black, remaining at the margins; and more, reimagining the margins as a fruitful landscape, one across which brilliance and knowledge flows. Resilience, in this case, is recognizing the value of your own nature despite those who wish to change it, and thriving even in a culture of domination.

To those who dominate, this resilience blasphemes the status quo, the normal. This is resilience that rocks the boat—but not in the way of setting it to rocking, rather in the way of revealing that it has been rocking all along. Critical resilience, like critical hope, looks at the world honestly, the way it actually is, and moves to move it forward.

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But here’s thing: not everyone has been afforded the conditions under which to exert critical resilience. Where I may be able to speak and write about resilience, I do so under conditions of privilege. It is a privilege I was both born into as a white cisgender American male, and a privilege which I toiled to achieve after growing up poor with an undiagnosed disability. Sure, I’ve been resilient at times, even critically resilient, but my resilience is enacted from a social location where I am not endangered.  

Critical resilience only works if we are able to be uncomfortable without being endangered; otherwise, human resilience is reduced to an effort to survive. When we must work to just survive, we may have hope, we may reach for resilience, but it is our doggedness and resignation that will get us out of bed each morning. Hardship doesn’t breed resilience. Hardship only breeds hardship.

Resilience isn’t about overcoming, but about becoming. And everyone must be afforded the respect, the right, the room in their lives to become what they will.

For educators—and for anyone concerned with the project of education; that is, the raising of critical consciousness for the betterment of all human beings—this means providing classroom spaces where students can cultivate their imaginations toward greater understanding of their world and their own capacities. It means identifying the structures and policies and practices that hinder becoming, that instead insist that children and learners of all ages must overcome to succeed. If we are to cultivate resilience in each other (and we must, for there is no future for humanity based upon the individual), we must create communities that are diverse, dispersed, multivalent, and at the margins. Everyone must feel welcome to test their mettle in the most productive, brilliant ways possible.

We must all ask ourselves: Who is resilient for us? And for whom are we resilient?

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One final note: In the world we have now, the world we’ve made of viruses and climate change, anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism, we do not need systems that hold things in place. We should have no use for standardization. It hasn’t served us. It didn’t serve us during the pandemic, it hasn’t served us in our response to the climate crisis. It doesn’t ward off authoritarianism or educate anyone. Standardization hasn’t contributed to the world we are leaving our children.

We have to create systems that threaten us. Because systems that threaten us respond honestly to the world we have, and to the vibrant, irreducible, unimaginably creative resilience of which we are capable. As Jesse Stommel writes, “Our ability to develop community will depend on our willingness to continue feeling joy, having epiphanies, asking hard questions, and sharing our curiosity with one another” (“Designing for Care”). Only when we keep ourselves on the edge—not the comfortable edge of technology and privilege, of trends and innovation, but the discomfiting edge of a pursuit of equity and compassion, of being wrong and being humble in the face of new knowledge and ways of knowing that we’ve marginalized—only then will we truly harness what we are capable of. It will only be out of systems that threaten us, practices that make us nervous, discoveries that bewilder us and which no one can capture under a trademark, that we will solve the problems we face.


Sean Michael Morris

Sean Michael Morris

Sean is Senior Instructor of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver, and the Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab.