Resilient Is a Verb

By Evin Carvill Ziemer

Close-up of child's face wearing mask

I keep hearing the word “resilient” and keep wondering what people mean by it. From a trauma-informed lens, resilience doesn’t mean we aren’t impacted. People who go through trauma are changed. Just as all of us have been impacted over the last year. Not just the pandemic, but also racist police violence and the attack on our capitol. Some people have more trauma from the pandemic: more deaths, surviving an ICU stay, or working in health care. But all of us are impacted by this time of fearing for our lives and our loved ones, being physically isolated, and the constant conflicts over community safety.

Resilience simply means our future isn’t only impacted by the trauma. We aren’t locked into a future of struggling with mental and physical health or re-enacting the trauma we’ve already experienced. Resilience means we are able to heal and grow and integrate the trauma in a way that it is part of us, but doesn’t limit our future. Building resilience is important because trauma can lead to future relationship, physical health, and mental health challenges.

Resilient should be a verb, a thing we do.

To be resilient, we need spaces to tell our stories; to feel safe enough to feel all the ways we’ve been impacted; to rebuild healthy safe social connections; to grieve. This doesn’t require a therapist (though therapists are great!), but it does require supportive relationships and supportive community and it does require time. Time to feel what our bodies really feel. Time to slow down and rest. Practices that help us shift out of hypervigilance and into grounded safety, like yoga, meditation, walking, music. And when I say “time”, I mean the twenty minutes you took last week is valuable. But we all need more. Time over months. Pauses between meetings. Staring out the window. Slow sips of water or coffee or tea.

But I keep hearing “resilient” as if it means we just bounce back and keep on powering through. Which, I suppose is what capitalism wants.

“But we are resilient, especially children!”

When I hear this I think we’re trying to ignore the impacts, trying not to see because it’s hard. It’s hard to acknowledge that many of us are exhausted, mentally foggy, and anxious. That goes for all of us. Some people are now fully vaccinated and emerging from social isolation and engaging their social anxieties. Others of us are still relatively isolated; we’re not fully vaccinated and our children aren’t eligible. Parents and caregivers are exhausted and have deep decision fatigue. Is that play date safe? What about the family funeral? Darn, are they doing an indoor buffet after all?!

When we say children are resilient, I think it’s because we really want them to be okay. But everyone is impacted. Our children are going on more than a year of loss of developmentally important connections, missed milestones like birthday parties and prom, stressed parents, and fears for themselves and their families. Many of us parents have noticed regression and anxiety in our children in the last year. Many teens have new levels of anxiety and depression.

Our young people aren’t really that different from the rest of us; they’re just at a different developmental stage and express themselves differently. Sometimes this confounds adults caring for children who have experienced grief or trauma: they’re confused by the children’s happy play. Children play--developmentally, they need to. And it’s part of how they process. I know children who have been playing “virus” and developing vaccines to save their stuffed animals and children playing “zoom school.” Grieving or traumatized children often will play happily one moment and then another moment experience some big feelings. Sometimes the adults in charge don’t notice that these big feelings are about the larger grief and trauma because children don’t say so, they don’t know themselves. All they know is they are having some big feelings which they probably blame on whatever seemingly insignificant thing just happened.

In many ways that’s true for us too. Many of us have had moments in the last few months of feeling irrationally crabby, angry, frustrated, or sad. In the moment, we don’t always know why we are reacting so strongly to something that seems like it should be small. This is part of how the emotions of trauma leak out.

In conversations with other parents lately I’ve heard stories of preschoolers stalking other children on the playground trying to make a friend; kindergarteners who come home sobbing because they didn’t get play at school; elementary students anxious every morning or desperate for a best friend; teenagers who feel better with their very small group of friends and anxious about larger social settings; younger teens seriously jealous about vaccines; playgrounds with children having trouble sharing; children of all ages acting out, having feelings, regressing. The world says they should be better now that they’re back in school, so now, next week is the standardized test we’re going to do as if this is a normal year.

But isn’t this all of us right now too? Desperate for real human contact; but also, anxious about if we’ve lost our social skills? Worried about which friendships will be easy to pick back up on and also about ones we’ve realized we don’t want to keep? Pressured to perform at work and home just as we were before the pandemic?

“Resilient” shouldn’t be a noun. It should be a verb - a thing we do. Are we resilient? I don’t know. Are we taking the time we need to feel what we feel? To reconnect with others in an intentional way that honors the time we need to take? Will we dive into congregational “work” and burn ourselves out more or will we take time to play and tell stories? Will we support our lay leaders and paid staff in ways that allow them to be resilient? Will we give children and teens the space to play and reconnect and the grace to allow them to act “younger”, the space to show their feelings?

I hope so.

For more about trauma and this time, see Rev. Sunshine Wolfe’s video from the March 2021 CER Dual Platform event.

For more about trauma and children and how we might intentionally plan our ministry with children and youth this year see this video from New England Regional Staff -- Wren Bellavance-Grace.

For more about the safety concerns about in-person programming with children and youth and including those families at higher risk, please see my blog on this topic from April.

Picture of Nkem Ndefo

Nkem Ndefo

One source of skills to build resilience is the Resilience Toolkit. Created by Nkem Ndefo this approach recognizes that for many toxic stress and trauma is ongoing. The toolkit includes evidence based practices in a framework that honors people’s cultural, historical and current context.

About the Author

Evin Carvill Ziemer

Evin serves as the Developmental Lead for the New England Region. Evin holds a Masters of Divinity from Earlham School of Religion and Bachelor of Arts from Carleton College.

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