“We hear a lot of chatter these days about the importance of resilience in higher education — now more than ever as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the lives of students. I’ve come to find it an insipid concept.” These are the opening words of a provocative short essay by Piedmont College professor Carson Webb which appeared recently on the Australian Broadcasting Portal (ABC)’s Religion and Ethics portal. Titled “Against Resilience,” Carson goes on to describe an encounter with a young man named Emilio whose life story helped him reconsider the much-touted virtue of resilience.
Carson writes that Emilio’s life had “not gone well.” It certainly didn’t exhibit the external conditions that thinkers such as Aristotle deem a requirement for “the good life.” And yet Emilio’s capacity for joy struck Carson as indicating not resilience but something akin to audacity:
A cheeky cousin of courage, audacity is foolishness to the sensible, boldness to the coward. I mean nothing against resilient people, but the idea of resilience suggests a return to a previously attained desirable condition, a recuperation of a happiness that was momentarily fumbled. Resilience is largely about regaining a sense of possession over a life that has generally “gone well.” Young Emilio had no use for resilience, but I suspect he might have approved of William James’s conclusion to the essay “Is Life Worth Living?”: “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Saying “yes” to life while you’re asking whether it’s worth living requires something beyond resilience.From “Against Resilience” by Carson Webb
This is a distinction that matters during these extraordinarily challenging times. Carson then invokes the insights of Soren Kierkegaard (“a veritable prodigy of social distancing”) and Miguel de Unamuno. “If joy is too tall an order,” Carson writes, following Unamuno’s tragic sense of life, “we can at least learn love.” He further delineates the two characteristics:
Unlike resilience, audacity isn’t about getting a grip on life, but about letting go as we enter life’s fray with love’s abandon. Audacity is for those whose circumstances put the lie to our sense of controlled happiness, those whose lives don’t go well but who wrest joy nevertheless.From “Against Resilience” by Carson Webb
Like Rachel Mikva’s reflections on the difference between optimism and hope (and other pairings), Carson’s subtle parsing of the differences between resilience and audacity leave us with a lot to ponder. What if we taught and mentored undergraduates with an eye toward helping them become not just resilient but audacious? Surely audacity is going to be a crucial virtue for navigating this new world.
To read the entirety of Carson’s essay “Against Resilience,” click here.