The Tyranny of Resilience and the New Normal

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic there is a word and a short phrase that are both in very common usage. All too often they are used in unhelpful and arguably incorrect ways.

Elasticity has Limits

Resilience has an interesting etymology, coming from the Latin ‘resilire’, ‘to recoil or rebound’. It came to encompass ideas of elasticity, naturally enough, as its meaning evolved over centuries. From an engineering point of view, the most important aspects of elastic behaviour for our purposes are that:

  1. An elastic object returns to its previous state after the load is removed;
  2. Past a certain load, elastic behaviour is no longer seen, permanent change remains after the load is removed.

You might already see where I am going here.

The Temporary Abnormal

The "New Normal" contains a similar unspoken assumption: that we have passed through a phase of one normality, through some transition, into a new normality.

But the truth is we are still under unusual load, still in the transition, and this is not the new normal. Using that phrase to imply otherwise can be potentially disrespectful and distressing to the everyday experiences of people who are struggling with the circumstances of the pandemic and in many cases the constantly changing and/or escalating demands it places on them.

It's like that unhelpful use of the word "resilience" -- used by some people allocating load to imply that coping with trying circumstances is purely the responsibility with those under extreme load. That usage reminds me of a quote from the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

We have normality. I repeat, we have normality. Anything you still can't cope with is therefore your own problem.

Douglas Adams

But in reality the problems that emerge in the temporary abnormal are a shared responsibility - from recognition to resolution. Individuals should not be left to feel they are on their own and that if they were only resilient enough everything would be fine, regardless of the load.

We must all remain mindful that resilience has its breaking point, its "elastic limit" and we have a shared responsibility to pay attention to this.

The New Normal is yet to come

There will indeed be a new normal, but it's going to take quite a while to emerge. Some of this will be enforced upon us, some of this will be negotiated, and some of it will be opportunistically seized.

Much innovation will come in the transition phase, "the temporary abnormal", and we can expect to see a great deal of this to survive into the post COVID-19 acute phase. Many old assumptions will be revisited and fall away. There's room for optimism and enthusiasm here, that while many thing will not rebound to how they were before we have a wonderful opportunity to shape the future that will eventually emerge.

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