Thursday, March 15, 2012

Resilience when Working for Change

by Miki Kashtan

I have often wondered why it is that there is so much strife and conflict in so many of the communities and movements I know of. This has been especially challenging to grasp when the groups I am talking about are generally committed to a vision of a peaceful world and the individuals in them aspire to personal integrity and compassion in their relationships.

I am very well aware I am not the only one wondering about this, and many have had things to say about it already. Some think of it as inevitable, part of human nature. Some think of communities as going through pre-determined phases. I find my heart sinking at these thoughts, because of my own deep sense of human dignity, and because I have so much faith in our capacity to transcend any static notion of who we are or how things must unfold.

Some others invoke centuries or millennia of practices of domination which have been passed from generation to generation through our education, through wars, through our governance and economic systems, and through the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be human and how things should be. In this view, each of us is brought into this world and becomes part of these dynamics regardless of what, if anything, is our essential human nature. Tragic as this view is, I find it more palatable, more consistent with my own heart longings, because it leaves room for the possibility both that as individuals we can overcome our personal habits, and that as a species we might learn collectively how to create new systems, structures, and practices that will support us in interdependently engaging with others to create a world that works for all of us and the rest of the natural world.

Why We Want to Create Change
I don’t know why it took me so many years to ask the simple question I discovered today: why it is that any of us would work for change - either as personal growth or as our contribution to social transformation. Since I think of most everything through the lens of human needs, a part of the answer became immediately obvious to me: we work for change because our needs, on balance, are not met in how the world operates or in how our individual lives unfold. Anyone whose needs are mostly met is less likely to want to create change.

With this clarity came another: if our needs, on balance, are not met, that’s likely to mean that we have less resilience. Resilience, in the online English learners’ dictionary, is defined as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” As a colleague once remarked, when our needs are often not met, any one experience of unmet needs can become unbearable, whereas if our needs are overall met, any one experience of unmet needs is much less significant.

The implication of this simple insight were unsettling. Could it really be that those of us who work for change are, in some ways at least, less resilient because our needs are less often met? If so, wouldn’t that be a reason why more things would appear to us as attacks, people slacking off, or the like; why more of the time we would feel afraid to say what’s on our mind because the weight of potentially not being received can be more debilitating; or why we would get angry easily when conflicts arise?

Young Haitian Soccer Players after Earthquake
Sources of Resilience
If, indeed, our lack of individual resilience is a contributing factor to the many challenges of working with others and trying to collaborate, then if we want to work for change we need to find sources of strength, activities, relationships, or other strategies that nourish our sense of well-being so that we can face situations with more presence. The possibilities are almost endless, and I would love to see a focused discussion in many circles about what can add to our resilience. To get started, here are some sources of resilience that I know have worked for me and others.

Solidarity: The experience of being in community with others who are experiencing the same hardship can be a source of immense support. Bell Hooks, among others, describes how segregation in many ways helped African Americans develop pride and resilience, because they developed an entire parallel society with many successful role models of business people, teachers etc., while integration has sapped both for many. Much would need to be explored about what conditions make this kind of togetherness supportive, and when the very issues of strife and conflict can interfere with the added resilience.

Gratitude: I have already written about how a practice of gratitude can provide immense fuel for life. After a year of consistent and daily gratitude practice, I find that I can now have immediate access to gratitude even in tough moments, and literally feel the increased resilience that arises spontaneously from tapping into gratitude.

Faith: As someone who lives without a god or higher power of any kind, I am well aware that people of faith often have much more capacity to withstand challenges and difficulties. God, or any other source of faith, is something to lean on, some profound heart assurance that a force exists that will bring about a longed-for outcome. For just one example, I imagine that for Martin Luther King, Jr. to say that the arc of history bends towards justice required faith. In the absence of a transcendent source of faith, my own relies on human dignity, on our ability to transcend circumstances, on the grandeur of our spirit. I aim to cultivate and deepen my faith, so I can lean on it more in times of great challenge, especially when I feel helpless and in despair in the face of the immensity of human cruelty or lack of care that I so often perceive in the world.

Spiritual Practice: If conflict involves temporary or longer-term loss of empathy, compassion, generosity, or care for self or others, this means that those capacities get most “tested” in those times when others (or ourselves in many cases) act in ways that don’t work for us. This has led me to recognize that we can increase our resilience by embracing a consistent spiritual practice that strengthens our ability to withstand unmet needs, so can access choice in how to respond to those difficult moments.

Vision: I wish so much that we lived, already, in the world of my dreams, a world without coercion, based on willingness and generosity, trust and sufficiency; where enough needs are met for everyone that violence becomes a thing of the past. For now, that vision in itself becomes a source of strength for me. I have found, repeatedly, that clarity of vision sustains my energy even in difficult circumstances. As I am reminded of possibility, my passion rekindles, and I find more capacity to accept the obstacles along the way.


  1. Why create change? In my case, I am only partially motivated by my own unmet needs. A bigger part of my motivation to create change comes from the unmet needs of others and my own relative privilege. I consider myself, in spite of my share of difficulties, to be enormously privileged. Along with that I sense a tremendous responsibility to make that privilege count for something much bigger and more meaningful than my own personal comfort. This gives me huge motivation to find pathways of service.

    As far as creating resilience, several things come to mind: working through grief, connecting with nature, creating rites of passage, and creative expression.

    Working through grief: I have found large amounts of untapped energy for positive change after releasing grief that has been stuck in my body for decades. This can transform pain and bitterness into gold.

    Connection with nature gives me great inspiration and comfort. I have a sense of being much more cared for by nature than by humans. A big part of what I see is our job as humans is to remember how to allow nature to do her work so that we only do what is ours to do and leave the rest to nature. She seems to know what she is doing.

    Creating rites of passage: by marking important events in our lives we create the space to acknowledge and accept the past and move into change with open arms. These events can become touchstones that help us whether the storms in life.

    Creative expression: what better way to transform pain and challenge into beauty and energy than to express it creatively? Through art, music, writing, making something new out of the broken pieces of the old? I love the mosaics I remember seeing in mexico. Old broken pottery shards made into beautiful works of art for the next generation.

    Your are right that the possibilities are almost endless.

    1. Dear Sarah
      I have found reading your contribution to be very moving. It connects me with a part of myself that knows the truth of what you write. It may even contribute to my creating change. I am deeply grateful to you and to Miki for bringing this subject to light.

  2. Glad to see this! For many years I've been deeply interested in what sustains people in change work, be they psychotherapists or activists.

    I can see how needs being unmet can definitely motivate one to change; has been true for me. At the same time, I feel concern about focusing on the unmetness of needs as a motivator, b/c it gives me a starting point of lack. Sometimes I think it's possible to come from a kind of fullness. Eg., I'm grateful to have walked outside safely, and I want everyone to have that experience. "My" need for that degree of safety has been met, and I still want (and have worked) for others to have that same experience.

    I heard Marshall say if anyone is hungry, his need for nourishment isn't met. I was both astounded by the seeming arrogance of that (how could he discount the difference between his having enough food and someone starving?) and moved by the profound recognition of our oneness and interdependence. I wonder if the motivation for change comes from "my" needs not being met on the individual level or the collective level? (false duality my/your? moving to "our?"?) And again, can we do social change work from a place of abundance, fueled by what is possible, the sweetness of needs met? as compared to coming from the pain of needs unmet?

    It seems to me that on the spiritual level and the neurobiological level the message is: We are love, wanting to love and be loved. Wanting to "give from the heart" (social change work being one form of it). I think practices that support access to love and life -- ultimate needs behind the forms? -- helps create perspective, energy, sustainability., resilience.

    I love what both Miki and Sarah said about specific ways to create more resilience. I love that activists are now addressing these issues, in the way therapists have been for some years.

    I think of Joanna Macy's work on depair. I think of positive psychology trends, looking at resilience and emotional intelligence.

    Other factors:skills for addressing not only grief but also anger, fear, etc. Skills for addressing conflict. Celebrating, learning, and mourning. Aligning our actions with our passions, for meaning. Learning about "successes" for hope and inspiration. Detaching from outcome. Identifying belief systems that can drain us (e.g., that there will always be war, or that I must earn my sense of self-worth by taking on all the problems in the world). Doing trauma work. Developing awareness of and kindness for all the parts and layers of ourselves -- physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, interpersonal. And kindness for ourselves when that is too much!

    and how can we move beyond sustaining our individual selves to a group consciousness? Building group rituals for doing despair, celebration, inspiration, creative expression, etc -- for sustainability of the group as well as the individuals in it, and building the practices in so they are part of the world we create, not additional tasks.

    How is our individual sustainability tied in with the sustainability of the planet? how do the large questions live inside of us, and vice versa?

    Awareness, balance, compassion seem key to me -- all identified by people doing early work on compassion fatigue/satisfaction and traumatic stress/post-traumatic growth.

    so much could be said!!! and I want space from all the words, to breathe into and from my heart, holding with kindness the feelings and the longings behind all the words and strategies.

  3. Miki, you ask "why it is that any of us would work for change?" and answer, "we work for change because our needs, on balance, are not met in how the world operates or in how our individual lives unfold." For me, what came to mind when I read that is the possibility that motivation for change could be not just about present needs but also about needs not met in the past. For instance, I work for change for people with disabilities. I have this passion because my needs were majorly not met many years ago with a parent with a disability. Therefore I have a sensitivity to working for change in this area but I wouldn't say it's about my needs not being met now. I would say that my current motivation comes more from a sense of caring, from wanting to give, from joy at seeing and feeling the difference I can make in someone's life, or in many people's lives when I influence how the system itself works. I could put this into needs language, but I wouldn't say I do this work because my needs are currently unmet. I experience my passion for working for wider social change as sometimes coming from anger or lack. But when I work with the anger there is usually sadness (or other emotions) underneath that also fuel coming from caring, love, compassion.

    So why is there so much conflict in communities and movements? Definitely, I think part of it is about the systems and beliefs we're born into. But I also think there is a hidden assumption in the question, the assumption that conflict is bad or wrong or wouldn't be happening in a perfect world. Conflict that is hidden or stuck or isn't handled with wisdom can certainly become an abscess that leads to violence. But, I think conflict handled with wisdom is simply energy, life energy, something to be embraced. The goal I see is not to try to eradicate conflict, but rather to bring more wisdom into the world on how to handle conflict (or prevent it when possible, of course). This, I believe, starts with new ways of thinking and being that aren't oriented around "us" vs. "them" paradigms. Clearly we also need systems and institutions and wise leaders that embody these new ways.

  4. Thanks for this post, Miki. It resonates with my experience of this past year working on community resilience in my neighbourhood. Reading that those of us involved in change might be less resilient because our needs are less often met was a aha moment. Many of us attracted to social change groups stand apart from mainstream society, due to life circumstances, our values, an unconventional career path and, often, precarious work or unemployment. Many are disconnected from their community of origin and have no family. Living on little money, sometimes struggling with mental health issues and often relying on the community that these groups provide, I would agree that many needs remain unmet. Acknowledging this fragility and building individual and collective resilience is clearly an important part of the journey.