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Why do we Romanticize Resilience?

The idle mind is the devil’s playground.

An all too popular maxim. Hard work, toil, and activity are conducive to good character: it is a belief held by many. And like many things, when taken to extremity, this belief can be a harmful perversion of its initial self.

Within Filipino culture, there is a dominant narrative that underscores much of our history. We are devastated by natural disasters, poverty, censorship, colonialism, and corruption. Yet we, a small but spirited people, stand strong in the face of hardship. We remain friendly—ever the hospitable, wish-granting local. The simple but strong islanders and that is our way. We Filipino individuals are resilient. I am guilty of buying into this myself—being born in the States to a middle-income family, I am gifted with much more comfort and privilege than many in the Philippines. A tour guide once relayed his story to me, how he earned about twenty dollars a day and worked his way up from poverty to live just shy of a comfortable life. Though he worked tirelessly day after day, diligently and humbly serving those who requested his help, he was still a poor man. My first thought was to admire his resilience, not to question the system that had forced him to spend his life like this.

As immigrants, we take pride in our toil. We have worked and earned our way to a better life. We have fought for our seats at a table that was not built to accommodate us. In the homeland, the hardships we face are dealt with daily. Should a typhoon ravage our home, we will find a way to rebuild on our own. No matter how long it takes. Suffering, after all, builds character.

It is not difficult to understand why this narrative has endured. Resilience is an easy way to normalize struggle. Promoting a cultural idea that there is pride in hardship is very exploitable, as we can commend suffering instead of getting to the root of why those people should suffer at all.

It is not exclusive to Filipino persons. The popular expressions of commendable resilience used by Filipino politicians echo the mindless and empty phrases of American politicians, specifically their notorious utilization of the phrase, “thoughts and prayers.” It is an acknowledgment of hardship that tries to alleviate all burdens from those in power by distracting from the fact that active change is possible. Think of the value of labor, of people applauding nurses who work 48-hour shifts, teachers who are underpaid and devalued, and parents who work while caring for their children. We don’t immediately question what puts people in these circumstances –why do hospitals refuse to properly staff their floors, why doesn’t the government allot more funding to public schools, why don’t better welfare programs and support systems exist for struggling parents? In almost every society, on almost every minuscule level, there is a glorification of resilience that not only encourages people to endure suffering–but actively pits people against one another. People are lesser, selfish, or callous, for shamelessly honoring their mental and physical health.

This is a practical ideology for those in power, weaponized against the helpless. I have spent my one life coming to terms with the idea that I am not stronger, deeper, or more important simply because I suffer. In academic institutions, amongst young people, especially those well-off and privileged, there is something appealing about having some sort of chip on your shoulder. There is the constant comparison of workloads and conversations that go like so:

“I’m so tired..”

“You think you’re tired? I only got three hours of sleep!”

There’s pride taken in juggling extracurriculars, AP courses, advanced college curriculum, a job, full course loads, doing everything a human being is capable of, and pushing your limits mentally and physically.

This is not a sustainable or healthy idea. But it is remarkably enduring. The pessimist in me is not hopeful that this narrative, which is worked so finely into the threads of our society, will be extracted any time soon. I catch myself buying into it sometimes. What is needed is work from those who actively profit from the belief. And unfortunately, those individuals and organizations won’t be attempting to unravel their own power structure any time soon. In the meantime, perhaps all we can do is focus on ourselves individually. We must decry the veneration of suffering. We must honor ourselves, our health, and our prosperity. We must aim towards the acknowledgment that suffering is not necessarily conducive to a good character, and especially not to a good society.


Editors: Lang D., Claudia S., Erika Y.

Image source: Unsplash


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