fb-pixelWhat’s all this talk about resilience? - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

What’s all this talk about resilience?

Atyia Martin, Boston's chief resilience officer.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Have you noticed how all of a sudden, everything is “resilient”? I was listening to a not uninteresting public radio broadcast on urban moss, when I learned that several stations have merged “resilience reporting” desks — to keep us abreast of hardy lichens, I guess.

I saw in the paper that University of Arizona professor Dr. Andrew Shatte was lecturing in the area on “Why Some People Are Resilient, and Others Are Not.” Shatte arrived early to the resilience party, as co-author of the 2003 book, “The Resilience Factor: Seven Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles.”

The promotional materials for Shatte’s Boston appearance promised that “in the final moments of the workshop, he’ll even reveal the biggest secret to a life of resilience!”

Boston recently appointed a “Chief Resilience Officer,” Dr. Atyia Martin, whose mission “will be to help the city cope with stress,” the Globe reported. For the time being, the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, not the taxpayers, pays Martin’s salary.


Rockefeller is all in on resilience, with a Global Resilience Partnership, the National Disaster Resilience Competition, and the 100 Resilient Cities program, in which Boston is participating. Among the resilience officers’ duties, the foundation’s website explains, is “ensuring that the city applies a resilience lens so that resources are leveraged holistically and projects planned for synergy.”

A spokesman told me that Rockefeller started investing in resilience projects about 10 years ago, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The foundation has spent about half a billion dollars on resilience programs, including public radio’s lichenological investigations.

I think we attained Peak Resilience last month, when President Obama invoked the r-word during a public appearance at the CIA. “I want to remind Americans again … how to be strong, how to be resilient,” he said. “We have to refuse to give in to fear. We have to stay true to our values of liberty and diversity and openness.”

Resilience means the ability to bounce back after adversity. There’s a cottage industry in Boston devoted to congratulating ourselves on our post-Marathon bombing resilience. You want to see some resilience? Visit Dresden, or Hiroshima, or Warsaw, or any of the many Russian cities vaporized 70 years ago during World War II.


To be fair, I spent some time talking to Martin, Boston’s resilience officer, and the subject of the Marathon bombings never came up. She cheerfully admitted that most people don’t exactly get what she does. “There’s lot of speculation,” she said. “People hear my title, and they say, ‘That’s interesting — what does it mean?’”

Martin sees her brief as primarily promoting racial equity in the city. “When you have an emergency, it disproportionately burdens people of color,” she said. “The goal is closing the gap between people of different communities so everyone can have the kind of healthy community they would like to live in.”

Resilience talk is just a little too glib, a little too modish, a little too nonsensical for my tastes. Americans seem to me like the least resilient people on earth, obsessing over bathroom access and Twitter wars while one-tenth of the planet starves to death. Starbucks ran out of one percent milk? I’m calling my congressman!

Can resilience be taught, or implemented, through government programs and foundation grants? Perhaps. To me, resilience is a quality that Americans lost years ago: The ability to take a punch and get back off the mat.

Now the instinct is to stay down on the mat, and find someone to blame for your problems — the Mexicans, the Muslims, the welfare cheats. Someone could run for president on that platform. Indeed, someone is.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.