a slightly edited transcript of a video I made for my students in April 2021, just before the second year's worth of lockdowns hit and smashed us...
This is another archival post, this one from April 2021, and originally made as a video… I re-listened to it this morning, in considering whether it was still valid and worthwhile to share with my 2022 students, as they cope with stressors that, for them, tend to trigger a lot of anxiety – up to the point where they’re incapable of functioning well enough to get through the semester. Re-listening, this is something of a ‘teaching’, I guess, or even a preaching. But I do stand by what I’ve said… and it’s also interesting to read how voice translates into AI-generated text. What I’ve done here is just tried to lightly fix up some of the typos and punctuation and syntax that don’t capture what I was trying to convey, while still keeping it raw. This was speech and teaching, now it is something else - but a good synthesis of what I do think is important with regards resilience. In an age of polycrisis, as Chris posted about just last week, it can be hard to feel and build a sense of agency, a ‘way’ through. Close readers will clearly hear David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’ speech, and Chögyam Trungpa’s voice, in this text.
Hello every one. So what should we do then, as we get to the end of the course? This is a really interesting question. And we've had twelve weeks to question a number of different assumptions, practices, norms, laws, crimes, etc, in the course of doing this course. Hopefully, in the book that you chose for the pair video, and then the pair video itself, you've had a chance to really get in deep to a set of issues. Having been exposed to those issues, you've realized that things are not so simple. And that even with the answers that society does provide, we still end up with a number of contradictions and problems.
So: I can't solve the world for you. And I can't give you ‘answers’. And hopefully that you'll see that with any of these complex problems in the criminal justice system, they're wicked problems, they’re insoluble, or they admit have no easy and simple and unambiguous solution. So the sad news is that with a lot of the things we've been looking at, what we’re left with is something like ambiguity and ambivalence.
Nonetheless, we still have an ethical choice to either have the courage to confront social reality as we see it, and work in it, and work with it, and work with what’s in front of us, no matter how constrained that is. Or we can turn our backs on it, and you know, sit in our rooms, play Playstation or whatever, eat chips and say: fuck it.
Or we can pretend that, you know, the world is ‘over there’ and elsewhere somewhere, and that we’re not a part of it, and that the problems are the problems of Other people.
So there are ethical choices here.
But how this might actually affect what you do when you go out in the so-called real world? One of the things that comes back a lot when I talk to professionals, and especially people work at the coalface dealing with people in difficult situations, dealing with traumatized people dealing with situations which are themselves traumatic. You know, one recent statistic that I read in an op ed piece by Jess Hill is that, in Australia, in Victoria, 40-60% of police resources are in responding to domestic violence, right? Violence against women, gendered violence, domestic abuse. 40-60%. So, you know, like at least half or more than half, nearly two thirds of what police do is responding to these things. Likewise, speaking to people who work in Home Affairs, especially people who are dealing with detention, if you’re dealing with people who are seeking asylum, or people who've been detained as unlawful non-citizens, you know, this is a very inherently upsetting situation. It destroys lives, and indefinite detention puts people in a parlous state which is terrible for their mental health. Given that that’s the case, you know, you can advocate for legislative change, but if your professional working must continue and if that upsets you – or if you're okay with that – that's another ethical and political thing to think about. But if you are a professional working in these situations, and you have to keep working in those situations, then you have to deal with this situation somehow.
And be resilient.
So this word resilience comes up a lot. This is a video about resilience. It’s sort of a buzzword now. In a basic cultural sense, you know, resilience would be something like ‘toughen up Princess, right?’ So we would start with a punitive approach, or we would start with a disciplinary hardening through exposure to traumatizing situations, and through process of toughening or hardening, a person would somehow become ‘resilient’.
I think that’s completely wrong.
First of all, I don't think punitive approaches work, but I think that X’ anecdote about working in the Remand Centre shows what that does to people, you know: it’s – it is a brutalizing situation that you either respond to by adopting the mindset of compliance and control and hierarchy and domination and becoming one of the boys, or you say: this is actually fucked up, and you go, and you do something else, you know, you become a social worker, where you advocate for change, these sorts of things.
Secondly: I don't want to get too Bruce Lee about it, but you know, toughness is not necessarily hardness. The tree which bends in the wind is the tree which doesn't break when the wind is strongest, right? So: have a lot of generosity; show some flex. We tend to think about resilience is something which involves being hard and tough. But I think these are really quite stupid and quite foolish ingrained cultural notions that you might have about what resilience really means. I think there are kind of six things that I’d point to here about resilience. So I'll go through them in a little bit of detail. Hopefully not too much Pete chambers detail, but enough.
So I would identify generosity, I would identify discipline, I would identify patience, I would identify acuity or mental sharpness or discernment (prajna), compassion, and curiosity, as I say, six values, which I think are aligned with what resilience rightly means. I’m drawing on a number of different traditions of Western philosophy, and also Tibetan Buddhism. So what I'm giving you is a mash of those old traditions, which I've read and studied, as well as all of the feedback that I've learned, through my teaching, working with people in the criminal justice field, as well as just the ordinary fact of being an adult and parent of three kids. So it's a mix of all of those different knowledge and experiences.
I would contrast generosity, discipline, patience, acuity compassion, and curiosity, with what I would call a poverty mindset, laziness, impatience, fogginess, or, you know, meanness and anxiety, as well. We see these all around us, this is kind of just a, you know, an ordinary aspect of human existence, but we can – and we should – push against it.
To start with generosity.
Generosity doesn’t just mean giving things, and giving things away; although it can, on a basic level mean that, but it also means getting away from a poverty mindset. A poverty mindset is really grounded in the sense that ‘I'm not enough’, or that ‘you're not enough’. So a generosity mindset would, I think, begin just with kindness. So just by being kind to oneself, and being kind to other people, by starting from the point of view that to say that, like, “I'm a fallible person, and I'm enough, you're a fallible person, and you're enough”, and by trying to give people a good reading, a literal reading, taking things at face value, and by giving, by orienting yourself around giving kindly to other people, and giving kindly with people, that this can overcome this poverty mindset.
So on a basic level, this can start with you, you know? Stop being so mean to yourself, stop putting yourself down, stop putting other people down, and stop blaming the world, you’re enough, they’re enough, and the world is good enough to work with. Generosity takes place where we start to give – in a situation that we think is workable. I think this is something which is really, really important for resilience. Somebody who is kind to themselves and kind to other people, and is oriented towards giving, where they've got enough to give because they are enough, is somebody who lives in a world of kind of spacious reciprocity. And that’s a ground of good social relations here. So when you think about resilience, think about generosity.
Discipline is really important. I think, you know, on the one hand, we have a conception of human nature where everybody is a person, and should be treated like a human being. And that's something which is categorical and inherent to who and what we are, and something which shouldn't change, depending on our status, or our behavior. So on the most fundamental level, everybody deserves basic respect. You know, this is something which is, again, the ground of reciprocity. Nobody exists well in an environment where they're not accorded basic respect, basic recognition, for the very fact of their being a person as a person, regardless of what they look like, or what they do, or how they seem to be.
This recognition is also part of discipline, in a sense, because alongside these ideas about who we inherently are, there's what we cultivate. I think one of the things which I'm certainly very oriented around is an idea and practices of excellence and striving. So if we start from the point of view of generosity, and we say that, like, I'm enough, I'm good enough. And if we stopped being mean to ourselves and putting ourselves down, and we stopped being mean to other people and putting other people down, and we stopped being mean to the world and blaming the world for all of the situations we nonetheless found ourselves in, then we can start to say that the world that we find in front of us is good enough to work with that in doing that – then we have a lot of work to do. We have to work with it. So I think that’s one thing we have to do. And it's something where we have to exercise choice.
This is where it gets hard, where discipline gets disciplined, because we're working against laziness. Everybody’s lazy to some extent. And I notice this with my kids, especially my five year old, my eight year old. Yeah, of course, given the choice, they will sit on the couch and watch Star Wars Clone Wars and eat sweets all day, and I could let them do that. And I could give my son, you know, three hours or five hours on the computer playing Minecraft, or whatever else, and they’d be as happy as a clam doing something like that. But would that be good for them? And would that cultivate – and that's the key word – would that cultivate the kind of qualities and virtues that we'd like to see? I think this quality of discipline is really, really, really important here.
You know, in the case of the course, it can be to do with time management, and project management. But I think as you get older, and certainly as I get older, something which goes alongside generosity is also discipline, in these senses just outlined. So strangely, being kind to yourself, can also sometimes be a matter of saying, “do it anyway”: it feels bad, do it anyway, you're tired, do it anyway, you can't be bothered, do it anyway. Without this discipline, nothing gets actualized, and no virtue gets developed. So that is the kind of tough side, the tough love of the love that comes with resilience, I think.
We can see very often that people operating on their default default settings tend to just want to get what’s theirs for them, you know? They're just out for number one, thinking about what's ahead, thinking about the afternoon, thinking about the beer they want to drink, or the person that, you know, they want to kiss or cuddle, or the TV that they want to watch, or the game they want to play, or the sleep that they need, and all that sort of stuff. On those kind of default settings, we tend to be very impatient with ourselves and very impatient with other people.
I think we can really see this now that traffic levels are kind of somehow back towards where they were before locked down. And we can contrast this to where we were exactly a year ago, where for all of its other problems with lockdown – and there's lots of problems with 2020 – I think one of the things which was so great for me, as someone who lives around my neighbourood, is that it was so quiet, and especially at school drop off and pickup time and in peak hour, you know, going to and from the city on a bicycle as a bike commuter as well as a public transport catcher, not dealing with all these people who are just running around like a blue-arsed fly, because they just haven't left enough time to do everything. People who first of all have overscheduled themselves, and people who are tailgating at life, then behaving in impatient and selfish ways with people, certainly in your dealings with your loved ones, and with your friends and family members.
And certainly, with my children, cultivating patience is one of the most difficult, but one of the most beneficial things that anyone could do. That's really an important thing. So: not losing your cool. And being able to sit with a situation and to be able to see and feel and experience the inherent spaciousness in a situation is something which I think everybody could benefit from cultivating. And again, like discipline, I think it's something that we can really cultivate.
But the grounds of this kind of discipline and patience, I think, is really generosity. The moment we start putting ourselves down, the moment we start being mean to ourselves and blaming ourselves; conversely, the moment we stop being mean to the world and being mean to other people and start being kind to ourselves, kind to the world, but kind to other people. Strangely, others would say this gives the ground both for discipline to develop, and for patiencce to develop.
The next thing that I want to emphasize is acuity. This is about a kind of discerning wisdom that cuts through the fog, cuts through the bullshit. This is really, really important. You know, if you're just walking around foggily on your default settings, and you’re merely conforming with what's going around, and you're not responding in an attuned and thoughtful way, then you're not really living, you're not really paying attention. So this quality of attuned attention, this quality of focus, this quality of sharpness, is something which is really part of resilience. And when you do meet someone who is really excellent at what they do, and a highly successful institutional operator, you notice that they have this acuity, this sharpness about them, which cuts right through the bullshit. It's something which is hard to define more than that. But I think that that’s something which we can really strive for.
One of the ways of, actually, I think cultivating this is through different types of practices of mindfulness, and different practices of paying attention. You don’t have to literally sit and meditate, although it could be extremely beneficial. But again, it’s about realizing the inherent space in every situation, and realizing the water that we in fact, swimming, or the air that we in fact, breathe. You know, you look at me in this video here, but the square meter of air which is around me, contains about a PET bottle’s-worth of water. So I'm actually sitting here in water, in a sense, talking to you. So it's about bringing our awareness to the environments, seeing the inherent richness and qualities of the space that actually always surrounds us.
But none of this means anything without compassion.
This goes a little bit back to generosity, and they’re related because one has to stop being mean to oneself and one has to stop being mean to other people. And one has to start seeing that the world as it is, it is enough, and good enough, and okay enough, just that you are enough and that you're good enough for this and good enough to work with. So I would kind of have this against the kind of a certain meanness and closed awkwardness. Compassion is when I think one realizes one’s own vulnerability. And one realizes not only the vulnerability, but the woundedness of the entire world, which sounds like a lot.
So there’s a crack, there’s a crack in you, you know, where the hurt gets in, there’s this crack in everybody. I think this is something which is taught across a lot of religious faiths very well, this idea of compassion. And I certainly think it’s something which the dominant norms of a very capitalist society, like contemporary Australia, tend to lose. If we end up in the coldness of SUV individualism, where everybody’s totally surrounded by their own private total bubble, and the bubble has no crack, then there's no way for the light – and, further, love – to get in. So, this is really about when one recognizes one’s own vulnerability, and starts to reflect. If we don't reflect on our own vulnerability, and if we don't allow the openness, if we close ourselves off to one another’s vulnerable openness, and instead of reflecting, we aggressively project a lot of our paranoias back onto the world, when we start seeing ‘Bad Other, blameworthy situation’, ‘shit person in my way, get out of my way’, ‘I'm in a hurry, get out of my way’, etc, then we've lost something which is really fundamental to the human condition.
You know, evolutionary psychologists talk about this as altruism. But I think it actually goes deeper than this. And you know, whether you’re a Hobbesian or Rousseauian, and I think we can see if we look around that, at heart, you know, humans have it in them to be both very cruel, but also extremely compassionate and kind. And so again, by connecting with that compassion, and by cultivating it, you can really become a better and more resilient person. So compassion is very, very, very important for resilience.
Compassion also gives acuity some temperance, because that kind of sharp discernment, without compassion, can be something which is a little bit harsh. So in a way, compassion is a bounded way of having that connection of love with people.
But there also can be something about just kind of like chilling out, calming down, leaving people alone a little bit, and leaving them the space to ‘come in’ somewhat.
Finally, curiosity. Again, this goes alongside compassion and acuity, I think, but this is really important. And it’s really important for reflexivity; for all of the skills we’ve been developing here. What I noticed as well is that many of my students, you know, nearly half I think, are suffering from anxiety. This is the most widely reported condition that I find among the student body. I find this really upsetting. And I say this with a family member who’s had a three-decade struggle with major depression, including hospitalizations, the works, you know? So I've really been through, you know, my family, we have lived with serious mental illness for a long time. I don't take these things lightly. I know what anxiety is, as well.
How therefore can we do this? Again, there’s a sense in which our default settings have a certain reward loop, a certain brain loop, which keeps us focusing back on the negatives of the situations, and the worries. Paradoxically, worrying can actually be reassuring. Because when you have a problem and you worry about it, you feel like you're solving it. But if you notice what happens when you worry, it doesn't actually tend to solve the problem. Relatedly, procrastination, which is related to worrying, it feels good in the short term – because you put off the problem as it was. But you don't actually solve the problem.
The other problem with anxiety is that anxiety tends to really kind of diminish one’s ability to make good decisions. Curiosity is a countervailing value here that’s alongside anxiety, insofar as it’s a relation towards what’s in front of you, and what’s in our immediate future, what’s imminent. But curiosity is a relation of wonder, and it's one of wondering about something – in a way which is positive and open, rather than tight and closed. So that kind of openness again, rather than that closed down tightness, that can be a really big difference.
So I guess what I'm saying with resilience is: be aware, all of us can have a poverty mindset and be really mean to ourselves and mean to other people and mean to the world and blame ourselves and blame other people and blame the world. All of us can be really lazy. All of us can be impatient. All of us can be foggy, or conformist, or have an employee mindset, or a customer mindset, where you either following orders, or trying to get what’s yours by rights, grab your entitlement. All of this, again, can be mean with the world, and tends to be tightened up and closed down. And certainly, many people are really suffering from anxiety.
In contrast to this, it’s worth really paying attention to how we might try to be kinder to ourselves, to be generous, to be disciplined, to be patient with ourselves and patient with other people, to cultivate our acuity and discernment in cutting through the bullshit, to be compassionate with ourselves by recognizing our own vulnerability, and the vulnerability of other people. And by being curious about the world, in all of its complexity, and in all of its magnificent fucked up madness, and all of those things.
These characteristics, taken together, can really help us cultivate resilience now.
This is obviously like a huge path that we're on. But we always have a choice, you know. The way I try to break it down for my kids – who are into Star Wars a lot – is, you know, you can choose to be a Padawan, and become a Jedi. Or you can choose the path of the Sith. So let’s get to the other thing, right, we do have free will. And we do have some ethical choice.
Our choices are always constrained. And the situations we find ourselves in in our professional lives are deeply constrained. There are problems of bureaucracy, there are problems of culture – there is capitalism – there are problems of 250 years of land appropriation, you know, if we're dealing with Indigenous Australia, problems of 11,000 years of patriarchy – these are not simple. They’re not easy. And there's no kind of unambiguous answer, or way out. But we can think very carefully about the kind of person that we want to be. And we can get in touch with what our values are, we can also get in touch with communities who share those good values and recognize them as good values, and try to cultivate them.
My advice? We can’t solve the world. Start with one problem that's very close to your heart and try to solve it, try to solve it somewhere that's close to you.
Also, I think one of the other things, which really comes up with a lot of cohorts these days is there's this idea that university isn't the real world, the real world happens when we go to work. And because criminology students tend to be very high minded. What I mean by this is that they really believe in some idea of service: they want to help people, save people, rescue people, change the world for the better solve crime, fix problems, they want there to be peace, they want there to be order, they want there to be justice. These are all beautiful things and virtues. Perhaps one of the misapprehensions, though, that I think many people are labouring under, is that they’re going to graduate from university, which isn’t quite real, and then go out into the world of work, which is ‘the real world’. And that once they’re there, they’re going to have purposiveness and meaning, and that that is the time in their lives, when they’re going to, quote, ‘make a difference’. And I want to say, as someone who's 41 years old, you know that this is kind of a line that we’ve all been sold. And you should be prepared for a lot of disappointment where that's concerned. So that’s the harsh part of the message that I'm giving you today, you probably are not going to find your life’s purpose or meaning, and you're probably not going to be able to change the world – in your job. At best, I think you can work in a really good culture with a great bunch of people. And you will make a small difference.
But you also won’t make the difference that you think you'll make. I think one of the things which is really interesting here is that the influence that we have, the difference that we do, in fact, make is something which is indefinite, which means it’s incalculable. The world is not a trivial machine. What I mean by trivial machine is something like a Coca Cola machine where inputs and outputs are aligned. So I tap my card or put in my money, I press my button, and the drink comes out the other end. So inputs and outputs are perfectly aligned. If you work with any complex open system – and all of these institutions we work with a complex open systems – cause and effect are not neatly aligned in that way. So, you can't go in to a situation wanting to change the world or save the world or fix a problem, you know, and expect that it will actually happen ‘straight’ – it ain't gonna play out that way.
I would say that the most important thing for changing the world is the friendships that you have: cultivate them and really look after your friends, your family, look after your family and really love your family – although sometimes they drive you crazy. And consider this idea of service, which might be something outside the job. So that service towards other people might be something which you will not get money in exchange for doing. So in other words, if there’s something which I wish to disabuse you of, it’s this idea that your job is the place in your life where you're going to find purpose and find meaning, and also make things better for other people. It could be like that: you could be extraordinary lucky, and do that for half a million dollars a year. But the number of those jobs in the world is vanishingly small. To be honest, I think it’s a fantasy. I think we’ve been sold a pup on that one. And it’s not where we should find meaning.
All is not lost though. Like I said, I think the world is good enough. We find ourselves in a workable situation. And to return with where I started – because remember, this is a video about resilience – I think by cultivating generosity, discipline, patience, acuity, compassion, and curiosity about the world: in 10, 15, 20, 30 years’ time, if you stick to your values, and really live your values, and approach all of the situations that you find yourselves in with generosity, discipline, patience, acuity, compassion and curiosity, you are likely to find yourself in a more wonderful world, full of purpose and meaning, where you will have actually made some meaningful difference to people’s lives. So that’d be the big final message about resilience for you. I would say it’s not about being tough. It's not about being hard. And it’s not about just putting up with situations which are traumatic or really fucked up. It’s about cultivating a lot of these attitudes, and really living your values. So if there’s one final message I would give to everybody be like, go do that. Live your values. All right. This semester has been a great pleasure. Thank you very much.