I want to confess something: despite my deep concern for social and environmental justice, I sometimes have serious doubts about the way many of us approach those issues. I, too, feel overwhelmed by the enormity of pervasive problems—climate change, racism, sexism, economic and social inequality… these seem too big to change. At times I feel the most we can do is hold a small beachhead against an ever-advancing flood. And I see some people defending each of their solutions as THE solution, and I yearn to find one myself.
And believe me, it is exhilarating and empowering and energizing to know that you have found THE solution! It is a deeply religious experience to tilt at windmills and slay dragons, to face a world of challenges that you can solve, and to evangelize for your solution with absolute faith in it’s efficacy.
But you can do all that and still be wrong.
In the face of futility and personal impotence, it’s easy to be drawn to ideas that promise one comprehensive answer. And it’s easy to gloss over the places where those ideas don’t quite line up with reality. In a recent piece in Jezebel, Melissa Chadburn describes her experience working in a nonprofit where fostering resilience was seen as THE solution to a myriad of issues.
“The story the campaign told was a story of lost resilience,” Melissa writes. “The narrative they preached was how to get it back. This is a common theme in community work. Over the years the term ‘resilience’ has been applied more and more frequently to people in distressed communities to mean their capacity to bounce back from dysfunction or breakdown. Increasing community resilience becomes a solution to chronic barriers such as poverty, trauma, and class inequity.”
And yet, it seemed few people at this nonprofit had stopped to questions the assumptions involved. Not only did they presume resilience was THE answer, they also presumed that “changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems.” It’s a nice thought—that if you just work hard enough, you can overcome systemic problems. But it’s not true. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you never have access to resources. As Melissa observed, “it’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around.”
I like the concept of resilience. I think it is important. I think it is critical. But I also know there is a point beyond which it doesn’t apply, because resilience is about systems more than parts, and the farther you get from the whole, the less useful it becomes. When individuals are suffering in abject poverty, the problem is that the system does not protect those persons, not that the persons need to be more resilient.
Resilience is just one example. There are dozens of silver bullets we cling to. You can vote, live, and buy your way to a better world. Changing yourself is changing the world! Except that it isn’t really. And what about recycling? Well, sometimes it reduces waste, and sometimes it is energy inefficient. What about shopping local? Well, sometimes it improves a local economy and sometimes it increases fuel usage when things are moved around in smaller batches. What about wind and solar power? Well, it offsets use of terrible energy sources like coal, but it also can’t meet demand. What about the idea that you can change the world by changing how you shop? Well, you can in a small way, but most of the important purchasing to change is done by companies and organizations, not individuals.
But we need these ideas, don’t we? If we acknowledge the limits of our solutions, don’t we also have to acknowledge that none of them will fix these problems? Aren’t we stuck in a maze of dead ends and despair?
The quick fixes, despite their improbability, are enticing and seductive. I understand why we cling to them even when the facts disagree. I understand why we stretch them beyond their usefulness and apply them even when we shouldn’t. I am tempted to do so myself, if only to erase that hopelessness that sometimes creeps in. But when we do that, our energy is spent uselessly.
We need to be better than that. The truth is that there is no silver bullet. There is no one solution. But instead of despairing over that, maybe, if we try, we can see the vast possibilities it implies. Maybe we can embrace the idea that all our work matters, that all of us doing the pieces we do well is the same as fixing the whole. Instead of carrying the weight of the world alone and clinging to the idea that our one solution will fix it, maybe, if we try, we can carry it together.