Sunday, November 6, 2011

Resilience: Book Review

One of the books I've been reading is Elizabeth Edwards' Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities.  You may recall that Mrs. Edwards was married to vice-presidential contender John Edwards, that they had lost a sixteen-year-old son to a car accident, and that she herself, having finally divorced her lout of a husband (and I describe him thus with regret, as I was excited about him during the 2004 election and even braved a long and cold night that fall to watch them both speak) before herself succumbing to breast cancer.

I was, of course, most interested in her twin burdens of dead son and breast cancer.  (I have been rather more fortunate than she in the husband department.)

I have to say that I am deeply disappointed by the book, and ended up skimming  most of it.  It is, indeed, little more than a series of reflections, and fairly disjointed ones at that. 

I wasn't put off by her emphasis on the loss of her son, as some of her Amazon reviewers were ~ I completely understand that.  I suppose some of her thoughts about grief ~ and particularly her thoughts about how a bereaved mother comes to see death for herself ~ might be startling to a reader who does not live where we do.  But they seem normal enough to me.

I wasn't interested in the  salacious details of her former husband's adulterous misadventures, and to her credit and dignity, she does not provide them.  And I wasn't interested in the details of the progress of her cancer and its treatment ~ that kind of information is amply available elsewhere.

But what I am interested in ~ and did not find in the book ~ is a deeper understanding of that word resilience.I am fascinated by words, and often find contemplation of the etymology of significant words to be a form of prayer.

Here are two definitions of resilience, from

1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.
2. the ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy. 

It comes from Latin, from to rebound or to spring back.

Now that I've read those definitions, I wish more than ever that she had explored the word resilience  and what it meant to her.  Was it merely an editor's choice, slapped on book covers as a promotional gimmick?  Or did the word itself resonate with her?  Was it a personal matter of vigilance, of determination, of religious faith, of hope? Was it a word she pondered and prayed with, or was it a word she came to despise?

I've come to think of myself as a resilient person, you see, but now, with those definitions in hand, I'm not so sure.  

I think that the problem lies in the phrase "original form." 

I am about to lose my literal, physical, original from, but I have long before now lost my original emotional and spiritual form.  And I'm not sure that that's a bad thing.  A childhood without a mother, a motherhood without a child, a body without a breast ~ in the face of all that, would I desire to spring backward into the person I once was? Wouldn't that be a little, well, silly?

And that phrase, "recover readily" ~ that's problematic as well.  Believe me, Elizabeth Edwards did not recover readily from the death of her son.  That's not something we do.

But we do move forward, into these other, unexpected and, in many of their dimensions, unwanted, lives.  We make new lives as new people, as different people. 

 I wish that Elizabeth Edwards had shared something about how she did that.  I wish she had related some of the conversations she had, with the friends with whom she shared her life and with the wisdom figures from whom she sought counsel.  I wish she had ruminated on what it felt like to discover that she had breast cancer, of all things, when she had already lost a child.  (Me, personally ~ I will tell you that it's a particularly rough combination of fates.)  I wish she had reflected a bit on how she found her way forward when life must have seemed like little more than betrayal upon betrayal: her love for her children, her body, her marriage.

I hope that the book was a bit cathartic for her to write.  She seems to have been a gracious and generous woman, someone whose friendship I would have valued.

But the final word on resilience awaits another writer.


  1. I agree with you about that choice of a word. I think we've discussed my feeling about the concept of "forging." Gregg used to purchase "forgings" for Boeing, and the process struck a chord in me. I wrote about it on my blog:
    Here is a brief definition of it: "Forging is the process by which metal is heated and is shaped by plastic deformation by suitably applying compressive force. Usually the compressive force is in the form of hammer blows using a power hammer or a press.

    "Forging refines the grain structure and improves physical properties of the metal. With proper design, the grain flow can be oriented in the direction of principal stresses encountered in actual use. Grain flow is the direction of the pattern that the crystals take during plastic deformation. Physical properties (such as strength, ductility and toughness) are much better in a forging than in the base metal, which has, crystals randomly oriented."
    I think what we've been through (& I have not had cancer, so I cannot speak to that) has more to do with restructuring our molecules than with bouncing back.

  2. I've just read your post, Karen, and I do like the word "forge" much better. I looked up the definition online as well, and it's intriguing to see its dual associations with heat and pounding, for those of us who have spent time in a literal hell and who feel that we've also been beat up, relentlessly, over an extended period of time.

    I remain astonished by your capacity for love and forgiveness in the face of so much sorrow.