At some level, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 shook all of us. Measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the quake caused 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings to collapse or suffer damage. 316,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and another 1,000,000 were left homeless. It was an urban natural disaster of epic proportions. Traumatic media images showed people struggling to escape and rescue others from the ruins. Relief agencies reported severe logistical problems with providing aid because transport and communications infrastructure had been destroyed.
As hours and days progressed, people started to ask questions. Why had the earthquake been so devastating? Would it have had the same effect in richer countries where buildings are designed and constructed to withstand such impacts? What were the underlying causes? It transpired that Haiti had no government-regulated building codes. Houses were built wherever they could fit, often on steep mountain slopes with insufficient foundations. Limited access to clean water and proper sanitation exacerbated risk of disease in the aftermath of the quake.
This catastrophe illustrated all too painfully a simple predictive equation used by relief agencies throughout the world: hazard + vulnerability = disaster risk. A powerful earthquake (hazard) hits a densely populated urban area with poor housing (vulnerability) and disaster results. A disaster reveals underlying vulnerability to potential and actual hazards. The global financial crisis during the same period as the Haiti earthquake revealed serious flaws in the global banking system, exposing economic vulnerability at local, national and international levels.
Against this backdrop, talk of building resilience, an ability to cope or even thrive in the face of considerable stresses and demands, has understandably become more urgent and commonplace in governmental, non-governmental and commercial institutions. Models of proactive resilience building strategies used in the relief and development sector include disaster risk reduction (identifying and addressing underlying causes) and disaster management (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). They have operational parallels in other sectors too.
A friend put it this way. A man lives under a cliff and a rock is about to fall on him. If you can, address whatever is causing the rock to become unstable. If you can’t, do what you can to remove or shore up the rock to prevent it falling. If you can’t, encourage and enable the man to move away from the cliff face. If you can’t, provide him with a helmet and body armour to protect him when the rock falls. If you can’t, have a medical emergency team on hand to increase his chances of survival when it does happen. Once you have done all that, prepare the man for rehabilitation.
Organisations have responded to the resilience challenge in a whole host of ways including continuous environmental scanning, diversifying fundraising or investment portfolios, ensuring clearer brand differentiation, exploring new global markets, forging strategic alliances, investing in innovation, improving customer experience and retention, introducing flexible employment policies and practices, investing in talent management and engagement, ensuring transparent ethical practice. All these tactics aim to reduce and mitigate external and internal risks.
This parallels similar developments in counselling and coaching arenas where the agenda has shifted from reactive or remedial stress or crisis management to a more proactive and developmental focus. People professionals from disciplines ranging from therapy to human resources recognise that people and people systems (e.g. families, teams, communities, organisations) are facing unprecedented challenges and need to learn and develop fresh insights, skills, relationships and resources to face them effectively and prevail.
In the UK, cognitive behavioural psychology-based approaches have become increasingly popular, helping people to think differently in order to reduce anxiety and stress and to see opportunities in the midst of all kinds of potentially bewildering challenges and changes. The principle works something like this. If I can learn to perceive a situation differently, to see it through fresh eyes, I will feel differently about it and respond or behave differently towards it. This approach can achieve dramatic and quick results and achieve a greater sense of wellbeing.
Other approaches based on psychotherapy, person-centred or human givens psychology expose and heal internal trauma or emotional struggle. If I can heal the historical pain that experiences may trigger or tap into, I can face new experiences afresh and with greater personal resilience. Psychological coaching has grown in popularity alongside traditional business or performance coaching, reflecting a recognition that how well a person deals with a situation depends as much on the person’s awareness and resilience as on the demands of the situation itself.
Recent psychological innovations include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) which is concerned less with challenging and changing thoughts about situations than its cognitive behavioural counterpart and more with learning mindfulness. The principle involves growing in awareness, noticing and observing one’s experience rather than struggling with or trying to change it, and learning to rest in a deeper sense of transcendent self. It reframes and embraces pain and difficulty as part of the ebb and flow of life rather than as a dysfunctional problem to be challenged, resisted or resolved.
There are parallels in Buddhism and in Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought. The latter view human experience in the context of a theology of God. The Bible portrays God as actively involved in the world and invokes trust in him as a way of approaching and dealing with experience, e.g. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t rely on your own understanding…’ (Proverbs 3:5); ‘I [God] will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). The Qur‘an, similarly: ‘Nothing can befall us except that which God has ordained…the faithful should put their trust in him.’ (Sura 9:51).
Judeo-Christian theology points far beyond simple rational assent and commitment to an alternative metaphysical social construct and lifestyle. It invites an openness to a spiritual dimension, a willingness to enter into a Supernatural relationship, an ability to draw on a transcendent experience that can result in inner strength, peace and growth in the face of adversity. It also advocates attitudes and behavioural qualities that build resilience at interpersonal and macro-systemic levels, e.g. love, integrity, equality, faithfulness, forgiveness, peace, celebration and hope.
These and similar qualities were found to be highly significant in enabling people and communities to survive during and recover following some of humanity’s worst recent disasters including the Nazi Holocaust, the Asia Tsunami, the Haiti earthquake. In light of this, Western psychosocial approaches and interventions aimed at providing post-traumatic support, based largely on secular assumptions and methodologies, are beginning to revisit the spirituality question. There may in fact be more to faith, spiritual reality and experience than a traditional secular functional outlook has presupposed.
This kind of phenomenology enables us to confront crisis and disaster at deep human-existential levels. A crisis challenges our assumptions, reveals our vulnerabilities, evokes our defences, shifts our perspectives, tests our resilience. In Western societies, our culture, wealth and technology have enabled us to insulate ourselves from some of life’s more difficult trials. Since resilience is built through facing challenge with support, some psychologists now believe this external protection is, paradoxically, reducing our inner psychological resilience. Is it time to think again?
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.