The concept of resilience is as old as humanity itself. Found in as diverse places as the myth of the Phoenix and the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, this idea seems to be paradigmatic to human experience. But what exactly does the term describe? Is it useful?
Resilience, as a psychological concept, is relatively modern. In current scholarly understanding, resilience is the ability of an individual to adapt positively in the midst of adversity (Masten 2013: 580). With roots in developmental psychopathology, it was through a large longitudinal study of children on the island of Kauai by Werner and Smith (1982) that researchers formulated a better idea of how humans positively adapt to adversity. They found that, on the whole, many children are remarkably resilient even in the face of significant stress.
But what differentiates resilient from non-resilient individuals? Research has highlighted certain aspects of individual strengths and community resources that act as ‘protective factors’ and support resilient responses. Such a list highlights the following; ‘attachment and effective caregiving, learning and problem solving, mastery motivation and self-efficacy, self-regulation, meaning-making systems of belief, and organizations and cultural practices that nurture these systems, such as schools and religions’ (Masten 2013:579). Furthermore, Michael Rutter (1999) described the ‘steeling effects’ of adversity: the way in which small amounts of stress early in life create the ability to handle more significant adversity later in life (Kim-Cohen and Turkewitz 2012: 1298). More remains to be understood about human resilience, however.
Since resilience is ultimately concerned with human flourishing, it is possible that the humanities can provide additional insight into this subject. In particular I suggest that insights regarding childhood and resilience may be garnered using the writings of George MacDonald as a means of reflection.
George MacDonald was a 19th-century Scottish writer, novelist, and minister, who is most remembered today for is his fantastical fiction. Considered the ‘grandfather’ of modern fantasy fiction, MacDonald’s unique view of children makes him specially suited for dialogue about childhood and resilience. Parenthood lies at the heart of MacDonald’s theology (Kreglinger 2013: 126), and seeing humanity as children of God undergirds his entire theological anthropology (Gerold 2006). He himself believed that ‘it is better to be a child in a green field than a knight of many orders’ (MacDonald 1895: 226).
This is contrary to the way most English viewed children at that time. Children were not looked upon favorably due to societal norms, as well as a certain view of human nature (Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1973: 347, 351). Against this view, MacDonald’s theological vision displays children as archetypal human beings, possessing an attunement with the Transcendent that belongs to ‘our fulfilled humanity, to our well-being at any age’ rather than to a ‘passing phase of life’ (Pridmore 2007: 61). For this reason, MacDonald used a child as the main protagonist in many of his works. In MacDonald’s view, the child had something unique to offer.
For example, the vulnerability of children presents both possibilities and challenges. Their openness to love and be loved, simple faith, and hope are ideals that are too quickly ‘unlearned’ as adults. Furthermore, for MacDonald, these attributes are ones that adults should adopt towards one another and towards God as Heavenly Father. Yet children are also untrained, untested, and in need of guidance. In keeping with Rutter’s idea of the ‘steeling effects’ of adversity, MacDonald saw children as possessing the possibility of developing character and fortitude. But children also need guidance on this journey by a more experienced companion; an issue MacDonald fancifully addresses in a short story entitled ‘The Light Princess’.
Moreover, MacDonald’s view of children provides insight into the construct of resilience. Children are, for MacDonald, archetypal human beings whose primary identity is as children of God. By stepping more fully into this identity, individuals become who they were meant to be, and many spheres of life, including how adversity is navigated, are redefined. For MacDonald, then, the faith of a child facilitates endurance of the difficulties of life, while conversely a lack of recognition of God’s loving parental care undergirds most difficulty in life (MacDonald 1886: 116-7).
Thus, by identifying as children of God and therefore exhibiting vulnerable trust amidst the vicissitudes of life, individuals remain open to loving and being loved and open to the possibility of gaining strength (being ‘steeled’) through the difficulties of life. In this way childlikeness, as MacDonald understood it, could be considered a ‘protective factor’ for resilience.
For MacDonald, childlikeness, as opposed to childishness (MacDonald 1867: 3), is a paramount virtue to be emulated. As he suggests, ‘I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five’ (MacDonald 1895: 317). Therefore, in MacDonald’s estimation, describing the child as the archetypal human being is a way of showing the opportunities and dilemmas of life present for all, no matter the age.
Note: This is a summary of a paper first presented at Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities Postgraduate and Early Career Research Network on 4 June 2015.
Nathan White is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. His thesis explores the intersection of social scientific understandings of human resilience and Christian theology.
Gerold, Thomas. 2006. Die Gotteskindschaft des Menschen: Die theologische Anthropologie bei George MacDonald. Berlin: LIT.
Kim-Cohen, Julia, and Rebecca Turkewitz. 2012. Resilience and Measured Gene–environment Interactions. Development and Psychopathology, 24(04): 1297–1306. doi:10.1017/S0954579412000715.
Kreglinger, Gisela. 2013. Storied Revelations: Parables, Imagination and George MacDonald’s Christian Fiction. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications.
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———. 1886. Unspoken Sermons. Second Series. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
———. 1895. A Dish of Orts. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington.
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