Resilience or Resignation


by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell


It’s tough out there!


We are still reeling from the psychosocial and economic stresses of the pandemic and exhausted from trying to pick up our lives again. In addition, we face steadily worsening power and evolving water crises. The political in-fighting may further cripple any chance of an improvement in service delivery. And the stupidity of investing a billion rand into an English football team by the Minister of Tourism is mind-boggling! These macro issues are challenging when we are also dealing with personal stresses.


South Africans have a reputation for their natural resilience, creativity and humour in the face of crises. However, recently, there has been a strong critique that the downside of this gift is that it can allow us to tolerate and accept the unacceptable instead of standing against it.


The problem is not resilience. Resilience is the capacity to adapt to challenging life experiences through emotional and behavioural flexibility. Resilience empowers us and allows us to problem-solve in collaborative and creative ways. The problem is a growing passivity and sense of learned helplessness. We are in danger of confusing the two.


Learned helplessness happens when people repeatedly experience stressful events. They develop a belief that they cannot control situations, so they stop trying. As a result, they become passive, and stress levels increase. Learned helplessness erodes resilience.


In our South African context, we see a marked increase in the belief that we cannot change anything and that our only option is to resign ourselves to the status quo and the probability that things will only get worse. Many people experience themselves as “financial hostages” to the situation. As they cannot afford to leave the country and cannot see how things will improve, they fear their only option is to resign themselves to what is. As a result, we are suffering from resilience fatigue as a nation.


In times of extreme adversity, we have to nurture our resilience actively. This includes taking care of our physical and mental health or actively connecting with family and friends. We can savour small victories and memorable moments and stay grounded in our faith. And, without minimising the seriousness of what we are up against, allow ourselves the gift of humour where we can find it.


Neuropsychologists have shown that our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. This means we need to etch positive moments into our memories intentionally. Pausing to savour the good, or journaling about some of the day’s gifts, can help us with this. Nurturing resilience and fighting learned helplessness also means looking for what we can control or influence and consistently taking action, even if in what seems to be small ways.


Let us not undermine the gift of our resilience. But let’s also not confuse it with learned helplessness and passivity. In the current crisis, we do not have the luxury of resignation.


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