From Brenda in Hove: When the going gets tough, the tough gets going: a matter of resilience

21 October

The Economist tells us this week that resilience has become “the buzzword for governments in the face of the pandemic (and) covers not only supply chains but also the ability to forge a political consensus around a strategy.” (October 17th) How fortunate that one of our bloggers (Louis van der Merwe) is just about ready to publish a book on that very subject: Gauging the Resilience of City and Town Government: A Manual for Strategists. 

The book addresses the issue of resilience in organisations – and especially resilience in those organisations that go to make up the government of a country, its towns and cities and other units employed in managing an increasingly complex world. It not only gives practical guidance on how to gauge the levels of resilience, but also ways of developing strategies to improve resilience.

The manual does indeed come at a fortuitous time. We would have done well to pay more attention to organisational resilience before the advent of the Covid19 pandemic. Emerging economies as well as developed economies are all experiencing serious economic decline as they struggle to adjust to the realities of life in a pandemic. Their lack of readiness to withstand the challenges posed are being exposed in most areas of public life: health, transport, supply chains, education, human capacity management, and governance systems, to name but some. It is almost like the sticking plaster that was keeping things together has been ripped off and the wounds below are exposed – fault lines if you like. Some would argue that this pandemic and how we steer our way through it is just a “dress rehearsal” for the much larger disrupter that lies ahead: climate change. However one frames the issues, there can be no doubt that making sure we have resilient towns and cities is a significant way to rebuild economies and organizations and prepare ourselves for a future that is significantly different to the past. We will be surely tested to the limits. Louis’ work and the research that went into the book (with a doctorate collected along the way) will be useful.    

Resilience is of course not just a matter for organisations but also for individuals. A couple of years ago, The World Health Organization described stress as the “global health epidemic of the 21st century” and building resilience (physical and mental strength) has been on the agenda of healthcare professionals for some time. It has also been on the curriculum for training in leadership for several years. And that was before COVID (and its attendant recession) and the prospect of climate change.

I have long been interested in resilience as a topic to address in mentoring and other activities. There are all sorts of ways to build individual resilience and most of us are familiar with the mantras of exercise, meditation and other good practices in our daily lives. What is less discussed are the casts of minds that help people through difficult times. One of these is optimism. Optimism is certainly helpful in maintaining resilience. I am a naturally optimistic person, but I must say I have to concentrate on staying that way, at the moment. In the UK we have a government which has not distinguished itself in handling the Covid crisis. We learn that the NHS did go through a disaster management exercise a few years ago – the kind of exercise designed precisely to gauge its resilience in the face of something like a pandemic, and simply shelved the result. No-one has been held accountable for this unpardonable failure of leadership. Books, manuals, strategies all rely on implementation – and on accountability.

The very heart of democracy seems to be under attack – even in those countries which we have come to believe are models of democracy. I point to the UK and the US as just two. Both have leaders that seem to defy the very fundamental underpinning of democracy in action – and get away with it. I long for the American people to call out these things as they go to the polls and I hope they restore our faith. I am holding my breath.

In the meantime, I cling to the motto of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, a motto he described as having “the pessimism of the intellect while at the same time having the optimism of the will”. That is, our intellect tells us that there is much to concern us, but we know that humans are good at solving problems. Exercising our will to be optimistic means we have hope that the difficulties we encounter can probably we resolved to a greater or lesser extent.   

Neither the adaptation to the covid virus nor the greater challenges that need to be wrought in the face of climate change will happen by wishful thinking. Helen Macdonald in her powerful new book (Vesper Flights) warns against the danger of “apocalyptic thinking being antagonistic to action.” There are all sorts of ways in which we can act, she says: “we can exert pressure, we can speak up, we can march and cry and mourn others, and hope and fight for the world, standing with others, even if we don’t believe it. Even if change seems an impossibility. For even if we don’t believe in miracles, they are there, and they are waiting for us to find them.”   

Congratulations to Louis for playing his part.   

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: older

June 30.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their son
g*,

I have aged beyond the normal passage of time during these last 4 months. Way beyond.  No question in my mind. I did not preface that statement with, ‘I feel I have aged …’. I find it hard to work out exactly why this is so. After all, living in South Australia we have been extremely fortunate. Our busy lives have been curtailed, but not drastically. There was an early panic evident in the rush to hoard food supplies and we learnt the Australians were particularly active in stocking up their larders. During those early days, the dread for me related to the fact that we did not know how bad the virus would be for us, what nature it would take. Stories abounded. The collapse in our stock market in February emphasised the approaching storm: health and wealth threatened!

But the issue has more to do with the nature of our lives as retired people. Maybe before 2020 we were living in a fool’s paradise, ignoring old age and the waning of our abilities. But now we are labelled as a group as vulnerable, many with ‘comorbidities‘ The percentages are widely discussed – an ultra-high death rate is assured for our age group. A retired friend was told by his doctor son that he must be serious about isolation because if he ended up in hospital it was unlikely that a ventilator would be assigned to him. Triage would be in operation.

So, the story is out: we are at the end of our lives and nothing new, nothing amazing, nothing significant remains for us. Together, my husband and I had planned travel to Indonesia – an interesting bird-watching trip through remote islands and I had organised a visit to Seattle to see our daughter and to travel with her to Yellowstone National Park. We have always been travellers and being able to pursue our hobbies of birding and photography in new places has enriched our lives. In December 2019, we felt that we still had the energy and enthusiasm to do this. I am not so sure anymore.

But my premature aging cannot be just this! It has more to do with optimism, or the lack thereof. I looked up the synonyms for ‘optimism’. They are: hope, confidence, sanguinity, buoyancy, cheerfulness. And those words hit home. I don’t think they describe my world at the moment. It’s closing down. Being so in touch with the persistent bad news, watching the numbers, does not make me happier. Maybe the way forward is to deliberately NOT immerse myself in the news. Ignore it all.

‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
’ as Dylan Thomas wrote.

That’s a bit dramatic for me and my angst.

I came across this article from the HBR. ‘That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.’

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR2D8HMqDiAvBpfX_ksJNUZUZbwxzr1Fs-XJViFbMNpOzVI-jih2LVRp1w4

Is this the word for this sense? Grief? Perhaps that is closer to my aging idea. Grief – looking backwards at my life and at the confusion of our present times. And maybe I just have to deal with this. I have never been a person with depressive tendencies. If you survive boarding school you develop a certain resilience! And I can look to my father’s example, how he conducted himself in his old age: never sorry for himself, never without kindness, always interested in the world, always generous.

When he died, my father left a letter for my brother and me; it contained this poem. An ancient Sanskrit poem.

‘Look to this day
for it is life
the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all
the realities and truths of existence:
the joy of growth
the splendour of action
the glory of power.
For yesterday is but a memory
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.’

A gift. Surely, that is enough.

*WB. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium