Excerpts from Resilience
by Elizabeth Edwards

Sixty pages in to this Christmas gift, I found myself enjoying it more than I at first anticipated.  Some malicious news/gossip drifted within the realm of my awareness some months or a year or two ago about Elizabeth Edwards selling out some part of her soul either by publishing this book or – maybe it was going on a talk show circuit afterwards or… I don’t recall the details. It was a reflection of one of those distasteful, distressing tendencies of the media spotlight to grind away at character, seeking and exploiting flaws of integrity, as if there are so many of us who could withstand such scrutiny well.

Context: Whiteness

The back cover sports a quote from pp.37-38, in which Edwards admits a preference for avoiding difficult things in life while reconciling herself to the fact that they are going to happen, no matter what. By this point, she has already painted the picture of herself as a person living a dream and believing it could continue unabated. She had noticed tarnish, but not allowed it to dim the glow of her idealized vision, such as (among other things) recognizing “that the color of your skin gave you a whole different, less hospitable country” (p. 15).  Edwards attributes most of her fantasy to growing up in a magical-military lifestyle framed by Armed Services Radio. Seems like a classic example of how lives become meaningful within a context shaped by media.

It is my interpretation to lay her idyll at the feet of whiteness – not the simplistic version of white skin privilege, but the attitudes and assumptions of whiteness – which can be embedded in any human body of any ethnicity, given enough socioeconomic privilege and cultural conditioning.  You may consider the evidence sketchy, but when Edwards describes how she is changed after the infidelity of her husband (coming very soon after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and some years after the life-altering death of her teenage son), I thought to myself, this is what whiteness shields you from:

“I was not wounded, not afraid, not uncertain before, and

now I always will be.”

Many pages later, discussing a transformation in her Christian faith necessitated by the death of her son, she writes:

“I had believed that God would intervene to protect the innocent. How, at forty-six, having seen what I had of the world, having walked around the site of the children’s hospital at Hiroshima, near the epi-center of the atomic bomb, having seen injustice and misery reposed among the innocent across the globe, I still believed this, I cannot say. I only know that I did…” (p 110).

Whiteness enables this kind of magical thinking.

“What we know is apparently no match for what we need” (p. 70)

Faith is a kind of map that orders a belief structure, enabling coping mechanisms and strategies for survival and – if accompanied by luck – individual and social thriving. “In my life,” Edwards admits, “the map has almost always been wrong.” She is referring to a saying of her friend Gordon Livingston: “When the map does not comport with the ground, the map is wrong” (p. 32). In lieu of a god who protects the innocent and guards the righteous from random trauma, Edwards comes to believe in a God who “promises only salvation and enlightenment,” continuing:

“This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is. If it is unjust, we have made it so. If there is boundless misery, we have permitted it. If there is suffering, it came from man’s own action or inaction” (p. 111).

Later, she adds:

“I remind myself: This is the world we made; its flaws are our flaws; its shortcomings are our shortcomings; and the degree to which there is injustice or unprovoked suffering is just a reflection of our failures…God gave me this world, and He gave me free will. It is my world, and now, if I am able, I have to fix it” (p. 119).

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

a small slice of the middle (or, in-between the turns)

In the subfield of Communication that studies language and social interaction, one of the things we pay attention to are turns at talking: who talks when, how much, after who, about what, how often, and so on and so forth. Turn-taking is a particularly intriguing subject of study because transitions require a rather complex coordination (rarely thought about because the norms for how to do it are so internalized). Edwards quotes a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Interim, about turning the world back a click or two, “just a turn and…” this or that would not have happened, “just a turn and…” we would be living some other reality. Living in the wishfulness of turning something back, however, is not resilient.

“In time, I learned that I was starting a new story. I write these words as if that is the beginning and the end of what I did, but it is only a small slice of the middle, a place that is hard to reach and, in reaching it, only a stepping-off place for finding or creating a new life with our new reality…” (p. 31-32)

Perfection is not a requirement (p. 9)

Effective systems have safeguards and backups in case of normal accidents. It seems like an oxymoron, but accidents do happen. Accidents occur with enough irregularity that they cannot be predicted and controlled, thus any comprehensive system assumes a certain “normalcy” to the fact that accidents will need to be managed. If one adopts the stance that, loosely, accidents are normal, one’s map is already prefigured to minimize damage by building resiliency in. One adapts as best one can, as soon as one can, in the best ways one knows how given the circumstances. This includes recovering from shock, such as Edwards describes:

“The Greatest Generation from World War II was not simply too humble to take credit for their accomplishments in battle (though they were often that), they were also good men too stunned that what they had seen was now part of their own life story” (p. 27).

We are all living our own life stories, and to varying degrees – depending upon exposure and attention – aware of unspeakable inhumanities being done by human beings to other human beings. We need to be resilient, not just in our own self-centered orbits but as persons in relation with the people whose lives we interact with daily, whether through the products of their work or because of direct contact.

the fullest breath (p. 17)

“The only contest we have,” Edwards concludes, “is with ourselves” (p. 212). She is mainly referring to how a parent finds the way to go on after losing a child, but she also means how a spouse recovers from the infidelity of their partner, and how one chooses to glean the most from every moment in the face of a terminal illness. Her answers, she emphasizes repeatedly, are hers alone, and every one must find their own ways to continue living in the face of pain and challenge. Resilience, however, is not only a feature of the the solo, noble human spirit, but of the community and relationships and ways of talking that guide and nurture the spirit through.  Yes, so much rides on single moments, and yet, with each breath, there is a new moment imbued with new possibilities, new paths leading to new and different places.  A friend just taught me this Albanian saying:

The minute does not determine the year.

There are, of course, minutes that do change years, moments whose occurrence changes lifepaths irrevocably and forever. Moments that teach “what it means to scream” (p. 17). But any moment, even those that require years from which to heal, does not have to foreclose the future. It may not be the future one dreamed, but it can still be worthy, happy, and whole. In a recent talk on Resilience: Talking, Resisting, and Imagining New Normalicies into Being (Journal of Communication 60, 2010), Patrice M. Buzzanell argues that “resilience is developed, sustained, and grown through discourse, interaction, and material considerations,” and lists five specific communication processes, all of which are evident in Edwards personal story.

Social relations and ways of talking contribute to individual resiliency but it is still, in the end, the individual who has to learn breathe deeply – either again, or perhaps for the first time.  If Elizabeth Edwards’ life had played out along her original fantasy script, she admits:

“I don’t know..if…it would have occurred to me that I had never taken the fullest breath I could. It had been diaphragmatic breathing, matching my inhaling and exhaling to some rhythm I wanted, some song that fit my life at the time, or I thought did. I had never had to find my own rhythm, never needed to search for my own cadence…For all of the times that followed those carefree days…for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned … what it meant to breathe for myself.”

Dedicated to Alec Kent
and the family who survives him