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Beyond Resilience: Lessons from and for Adult Jewish Learning

March 21, 2017 • By Dean Phillip Bell Beyond Resilience: Lessons from and for Adult Jewish Learning

Based on a course developed and taught with Professor Mike Hogue (Summer, 2016) and a Graduation Address delivered at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership (December, 2016).

The term “resilience” is ubiquitous today. From psychology and self-help manuals, to ecological and sustainability discussions, student retention and persistence policies, economic strategies and investment portfolios, medical treatments, political agendas and policy whitepapers, urban development plans, globalization debates, disaster response and crisis management, and of course leadership advice, to name just a few, concern about resilience finds its way in to daily conversations. 

The implication of the myriad discussions about resilience today is that the world we live in is fundamentally unstable, ever changing, and threatening. We must take proactive steps to prepare ourselves for the inevitable and difficult challenges we will surely face. The emphasis on building resilience is intended to soothe our worst fears. 

For some, however, resilience is nothing more than an elaborate ploy by authorities (the neoliberal state) to wring autonomy from people, in the name of protection, by convincing them that risks and dangers are ever present and steps need to be taken to assure security and manage change (change that is seen as negative and destabilizing). While we cannot escape crisis, resilience promises a certain degree of imperviousness; we come to believe that if we are somehow better prepared we can rebound from life’s ongoing challenges and continue on. 

But some critics assert that such imperviousness is illusory. Other cynics have noted that resilience—regardless of how we think about it—is essentially an amoral concept, neither good nor bad in and of itself. After all, the insects that prove to be unaffected by pesticides or the bacteria that are immune to drugs can be extremely resilient. Therefore, they conclude, cultivating resilience without a specific context or goal is not necessarily beneficial.

But what exactly is resilience? In its earliest and most basic form in the field of material science, resilience was simply the trait of “bouncing back,” returning to a position of status quo after some intervening event. Perhaps the classic example is a rubber band, stretched far, but ultimately returning to its approximate resting state.

However, as you might notice, the state returned to is never quite exactly the same as the original state. There is, we might say, a more nuanced concept of resilience, which has been enriched by ecology and behavioral science research. Ecology teaches us that natural systems have the capacity to recover from environmental stresses in a way that leads to system sustainability. Ecosystems are constantly in flux and can function over a wide range of natural variability and they do not operate constantly in some optimal state. Resilience in developmental psychology, to take one more example, denotes achieving better than expected outcomes given risk; sustaining competence under adverse conditions; and regaining normal functioning following a period of exposure to trauma or adversity.

If the quest for resilience is all around us today and if, at least for some, it holds out so much value as we confront contemporary challenges and crises, what can we say about it in relationship to Judaism and to adult Jewish learning?

To be an adult learner is surely no simple task, balancing, as adults must do, a broad range of personal and professional obligations. But the task of adult Jewish learning goes far beyond managing calendars and carving precious time from busy schedules—stretching ourselves and then going quietly back to life as it was. Learning in Judaism is itself a holy task, which forces us to pose and respond to complex and difficult questions, to engage with sophisticated and, at times rather murky, texts and concepts … all in the service of critical thinking and application.

This can be quite a challenge, especially given what we know about adult learning generally and the adult brain in particular. Adult learners are, and have to be, quite resilient. However, this resilience is both a marvelous opportunity and a profound challenge. Adult learners are (usually) autonomous and seek to have responsibility for and control of their learning. They are goal-oriented and practical, drawing on previous and often diverse experiences and acquired resources. They often search for a bigger picture and seek deeper relevance in their learning. Still, at the same time, adults must fit their learning into life's "margins," juggling a variety of outside responsibilities and even physical limitations. They frequently lack confidence in their learning and their abilities. They can be much more set in their ways and resistant to change than younger learners. They often need community for support to succeed. Brain science reinforces just how challenging learning can be in this context. As adult learners we have built into our DNA, as it were, the capacity to be resilient—to put our nose to the grind and to stick to prior notions and understandings, regardless of what the world shows us. We do this rather reflexively. 

That is the basic notion of resilience, but it is one that limits growth. Being truly resilient as adult learners, therefore, must mean more than exploring new concepts and returning to our initial conceptions. It must also mean more than acquiring and accommodating new information. When successful, resilient learning incorporates prior experiences and world views in the service of exploring new ideas, perspectives, and applications. This is a fuller sense of resilience, which pushes us beyond self-contented (re)confirmation. 

With this quick overview of resilience, especially within the context of adult learning in mind, let’s turn quickly to a classical Jewish text for some final synthesis. The work of the rabbinic sages is valuable in this context. Let me provide only one example.

 The Book of Lamentations describes the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century BCE. The rabbinic midrash on Lamentations rehearses and revises that narrative in light of the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century CE, as well as other experiences. The rabbis inherently understood core concepts of resilience in their work, which revealed a complex sensibility that was about more than mere survival, adaptation, or change in perspective. We can continue to learn from their efforts. Rabbinic interpretation was nothing short of revolutionary as it sifted and grafted diverse biblical passages into an innovative structure that managed to keep the original passages true to their context while weaving new meaning.

 After the destruction of the Second Temple the rabbis needed to fashion a corrective narrative in the ongoing relationship between God and the Jewish people. They did this in part by focusing on the study of Torah and the observance of commandments (mitzvoth) as key replacements of the Temple structure and service and by articulating the idea of a final redemption (at the end of historical time not within it). In this emphasis on the Torah, the forsaking and neglect of Torah was presented as a primary transgression that resulted in the destruction. In a brilliant interpretative strategy, the rabbis further asserted that the destruction would ultimately lead to redemption. At the same time, they re-engaged with God, who was depicted as a mourner, suffering along with the exiled subjects. Throughout the text and elsewhere, the rabbis intuited several key aspects of resilience, which are important take-aways in adult Jewish learning.

First, it is essential to create a sense of coherence in our lives, our organizations, and our communities—narration, story-telling as we like to talk about it today, can create comprehensibility, meaningfulness, and simultaneously manageability. But narration is more than telling any story—it is about “connecting the dots.” It is about visioning and transformation, through inspiring and relatable communication rooted in something tangible and meaningful.

 Second, community and relationships foster resilience. Community, which the rabbis profitably noted transcended both time and geography to form common identity; and relationships—established through textual traditions, interpretations, and discussions with others.

 Finally, and related, memory is an important key to resilience. It is easy to get stuck in the past. The past colors much of what we do—our memories, lessons, and constructions that filter new experiences; the past has great power—but while it must guide us and serve as a springboard it is not enough in and of itself.

 New material and events that are sufficiently inconsistent with our past experiences and sensibilities are disruptive; but that disruption is tested against the past, brings on new understanding in the form of assimilation and accommodation, and, continuing the cycle, crafts new memories that will serve us moving forward. As historians have noted, humans live in three temporal worlds simultaneously—past, present, and future—and each one affects the other.

Resilience is important in learning and life. Resilience in and of itself is not enough today, however. Bouncing back will not move us forward. It is important, but not sufficient. Adaptation is not the ultimate response either. As the rabbis taught us, we must evaluate systems and perspectives, retaining important functions while developing new skills and ways of thinking. It is this resilience—one rooted both in tradition and agility to respond to changing conditions—that will serve us well as learners and help us to enhance life. Resilience lacking these central components will never truly protect or advance us. We must face challenges and crises with a return to tradition for grounding, insight, and guidance, even as we chart new territory in our responses through careful reflection and re-positioning. This is the true nature and lesson of resilience, which requires that we look beyond return to the status quo or adaptation for the sole sake of survival. Tradition and reflection—in this sense, resilience is an innate and valuable Jewish characteristic, one that can serve us well in our ongoing learning. This is one way we can truly enhance life for ourselves, families, organizations, and communities.