Recognising the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change, resilience is one of the University of Twente’s spearheads. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. In this weekly series of the Resilience@UT programme, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. In this issue, Carmen Anthonj questions the generally-accepted view that adversity makes us stronger.
What makes us resilient, as human beings, to the challenges we are facing on an everyday basis? Or in a state of emergency? How do we learn to cope with difficult situations? How do we become resilient, and how do we stay resilient?
In facing and overcoming difficult situations, we tend to say, “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”. This phrase, coined by the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, has been used as an affirmation of what it takes to strengthen resilience. Does, what doesn’t kill us, really make us stronger?
Personally, I feel that I grew from dealing with every challenge life threw in my way, from every barrier I had to overcome, in my personal and professional life; that such experiences made me stronger, prepared and trained me for new and even greater challenges. So, I can agree with Nietzsche, and stick to the mantra of a close friend “you fall down, you get up, you straighten your crown, you move on.” And I am aware that with my supportive family, my beautiful home, my secure employment, it is somewhat easy to agree.
Over the past weeks and months, I have been learning from people experiencing homelessness, about the struggles they are facing in order to access drinking water, toilets and healthcare – basic human rights, as recognized by the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council in 2010. I learned that in a civilized, prosperous society in a high-income country, there is some distance to go in order to realize this human right. I learned that people without a home often have no opportunity of relieving themselves in a dignified and safe place, exposing themselves to the risk of being fined, to health risks, shame and stigma. Initially the intention was to investigate the resilience of public health-promoting infrastructure during extreme weather events for people who are homeless. It resulted however in drawing attention to the lack of resilience among those individuals that such infrastructure is supposed to serve. Does what doesn’t kill us really make us stronger?
I am grateful for the stories shared with me by several people who are homeless, some of them deeply personal, some of them too sad to believe. They taught me about the complex realities of life that they face, about their personal tragedies, ill health, mental health issues often involving alcohol and substance abuse. And I now understand the hardship they experience when trying to access basic services. I met very strong people and also desperate people who consider themselves very weak. Anyone can end up being homeless, and escaping homelessness is almost impossible, according to some.
The way the people I spoke with described their daily (mis)treatment by people who are more fortunate, made me consider whether something must almost kill us to make us stronger? Thinking about resilience and vulnerable individuals facing invisible struggles at the edge of society, I encourage us all to reconsider our understanding of human resilience. In doing so we can be a little more compassionate, listen more and offer help when we get the chance. No matter how strong we are, we all need a little help at times.
Carmen Anthonj is an Assistant Professor of GeoHealth in the Department of Earth Observation Science at the Faculty ITC, University of Twente.
Find more information about the Resilience @ UT programme at our website.