Resilience as Imagination

When life knocks us down, imagination can help us get back up.

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Congratulations!  If you are reading this, you already know something about resilience. You’ve survived the last several years in this country, which hasn’t been easy for many of you. You’ve lived through intense polarization. You may have lost people to disconnection, better boundaries for your health and well-being, lack of time and energy, or death. It’s been a lot to handle. Several of us have come to a new depth of understanding of how the systems (family, economic, employment) we live within are unsustainable. Some of us, like myself, have barely survived the last three years. 

Thankfully, some of the previous experiences of my life prepared me to lean into resilience skills I had already developed and also led me to new techniques. I hope that inside this article you will find some new ways of thinking about resilience for yourself, your community, and our world as a whole. As a content warning, the religious imagination section includes a brief story about suicidality and how religious imagination provides resilience. 

Imagination has been critical to my survival and sustaining during difficult times. For the years I was in bed, barely able to breathe, stand, or walk, imagination meant everything. When I did not have the breath to talk, the strength to type, or any hope of getting better, imagination was my constant companion and source of support. Long COVID  interacted with my rare genetic condition in permanently life-altering ways. I’ve spent many hours in bed imagining things getting better without knowing how to improve them. I simply imagined that things would get better. Not in an “if I dream it, it’ll happen” manner, but in the style of a prayer. While we might think prayer changes God’s mind about our reality, it more often changes our mind about that reality.

Religious imagination and resilience

I learned at a young age how to dream about God. In eighth grade, the experience of being bullied and sexually harassed at school led to me becoming suicidal. Every time I was about to make an attempt on my life, Jesus appeared in my head and told me in an audible voice I could hear: “I love you. I have plans for you; you must stay here until those plans are carried out. You didn’t give yourself life; you don’t have the right to take your life.” Although my theology is much more nuanced now, Jesus saved my life when I was 13. This mystical experience was part of developing what I’ve come to call my religious imagination. It doesn’t matter to me if we call it a vision, a mystical experience, an encounter with Jesus, an answer to prayer, or imagination. It only matters that this thing that happened inside my own head saved my life and gave me a well-developed, lifelong relationship with Jesus that has provided a lot of resilience for me and my ministry. This religious imagination of picturing Jesus with me and living life with me gives me considerable resilience to this day. 

Perhaps the best description of resilience comes from the band Chumbawamba’s song “Tubthumping” from 1997,  “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” Or, for a more formal definition than song lyrics, see how the American Psychological Association defines resilience: 

“Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” (From https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

Unfortunately, you are not born with resilience. Resilience is learned and requires both a lot of internal and external resources. Think about it like this:  If you have a cash flow problem and you get charged overdraft fees, but then a day or two later you get $3,000 in your bank account, which covers all your bills AND your overdraft, your bank account is resilient. If, on the other hand, you were born into a situation or find yourself in one now where you don’t make enough to cover overdraft fees, groceries, housing, transportation, clothing, and health care, you might never be able to pay those fees. People call this a Poor Tax because it affects some people much more than others. It is only an annoying inconvenience for some with financial resources and resilience. For others, it is the difference between being able to eat or not. 

It is imperative to keep in mind that resilience isn’t only one action or worldview. It also isn’t only an internal, individual thing. Some organizations are more resilient than others. Some systems are more resilient and so are some families. Some of you were never taught resilience and had to learn things the hard way. This article will cover ways you can grow in your resilience as individuals, communities, and systems. It takes practice. It takes failure. It takes heartbreak. Assuming you have some resources available, it is the ability to learn. Once again, this is significantly harder for some of you because the world we’ve built gives immense privileges to some, a few to others, and leaves many others without.  I hope that by hearing pieces of my story and what I’ve learned about resilience, regardless of your social location, you will find some ways to build up your own resilience. 

Personal imagination as resilience

Writing and talking about resilience as individuals is delicate. Some of you have multiple resources and privileges that help you practice resilience. Some of you might live in a world where you can barely survive. Personally, I’ve had to learn strength in a world where my needs will never be fully met. Part of that resilience is simply learning to live with that and to find joy anyway. Part of resilience is creating communities and systems that lift one another up when we reach the end of our personal, individual resilience. This is primarily a caution for preachers. Everyone has different access to resources; finding some resilience takes external and internal resources. Resilience often happens best in community, even when the community you live in cannot meet all of your needs. Anything we can do as individuals and communities to create systemic change gives everyone more resilience to share. 

My life can be complex and overwhelming, and I bet yours can too. The world is not set up to support disabled families like mine, especially when our queerness is added into the mix. In the last three years, everyone in my family got several new diagnoses and after I personally got long COVID, we did not know if I would survive. I spent years not being able to breathe. The meds for my lungs interacted with my rare genetic condition to tear tendons and ligaments in both ankles and both knees. I’ve had too many ER visits, a few hospitalizations, years of physical therapy, doctor appointments, surgeries, and procedures. In addition, I spent a year on supplemental oxygen and in a wheelchair, which I will still need occasionally. Covid permanently changed my body in very complicated and rare ways that were even too complicated for several doctors. 

One thing that limits my resilience is a medical system where, if a doctor doesn’t want to see a complicated patient, they can fire the patient from their practice rather than spend time reading, researching, and doing trial and error. This isn’t even only the doctor’s fault (although some of them simply refuse to try), as our for-profit healthcare system requires doctors to treat patients like widgets in a factory with no time for the complicated ones like me. 

I live near Chicago and have access to specialists and subspecialists. If some doctors fire me, I can find a new one. I have health insurance and retirement savings that can be taken out for medical bills and other disability needs. I have generational wealth, family support, and a corporate disability plan, despite the state of my bank account. (I encourage you to Google “Crip Tax” along with “Poor Tax.”) Still, with all these resources, it took three years to figure out why I couldn’t breathe, what new diagnoses are permanent, and tons of trial and error to find the right treatments. Many people are not so lucky.

I hope you can see how sometimes my life is impossible and I’m left with impossible choices, as many of you are. Most of my energy in the last three years went to keeping my heart beating and my lungs breathing, plus keeping my family and neighbors alive in whatever ways I could. My therapist offered me a helpful technique as I live with many unmet needs and must find resilience anyway.

She said she wanted me to spend 1-5 minutes daily imagining that all my needs are met. As a queer disabled woman with a queer disabled family, that is literally impossible in our system. My needs will never be fully met. I resisted the idea for months as I thought it would only depress me more and encourage me to think about everything I didn’t have. 

Once I finally agreed to try it, I learned what she had been telling me to be true. Doing this resets my nervous system and gets me out of fight or flight mode. Taking a break from the fight to survive, even for 1 minute daily, resets my nervous system. It gives me more resources and resilience to figure out how to stay alive longer. Resetting our nervous system is an integral part of resilience especially when we are in impossible situations that don’t actually have solutions. Learning to live with these constant threats to my health and family has been a journey. My faith has helped me significantly with that journey. (For more ways to reset your nervous system to live through impossible circumstances, please see the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, Amelia Nagoski, et al., published by Random House in 2020.)

Once again, Jesus showed up for me in the last three years. Sometimes I imagined him sitting beside me and breathing with me; He had lungs after all. This is what’s so great about believing in a Creator God who wanted to come to earth in a human body. When I was recovering from having an organ donor’s tendons and ligaments placed into my ankle, I went to church on Ash Wednesday and took communion. As the Pastor said, “This is my body” I heard, “Here is something to strengthen your body.”  As I ate the bread, I imagined Jesus’ ankle strengthening mine and helping it knit back together. The remarkable thing about receiving an organ donation is that it isn’t just me getting back my ability to walk: it is also the Communion of Saints, my neighbors, and my community giving it to me. It is a gift of life for so many, and I’m eternally grateful to be able to walk without constantly risking more severe joint damage to my ankles. This religious imagination has been foundational to my resilience, especially when I was too sick to interact with other human beings. Jesus is always there for me inside my own head, even if I can’t breathe, talk, or type. 

Another vital piece of resilience for our family has been to change our definitions and expectations. Our situation has changed some, but most of what’s happened in the last three years is permanent, including a family death to covid. My house will never be clean and clutter-free, so I decided that if I can walk around, and there are no bugs or rodents or mold, if I can find most things most of the time, and it smells better than a pig farm, that’s good enough. For a couple of years, our family had a successful day if most people got food and medicine and no one ended up in the ER. Our bar for “success” had to change drastically. Please don’t ask me about the days we failed to meet those goals; I’ve tried to block them out. 

Resilience in my new post-covid body has also included many more breaks for myself and better boundaries. I can hurt myself badly if I pick up too many things from the floor at one time. Sometimes, this still stresses me, as does the clutter in the house. I beat myself up for the clutter or for being unable to do more with my body. Then I remember that I can’t always control those things, but I can control how I define things. I can control (on my good days) my reaction to those things. 

Resilience for me won’t mean returning to my pre-covid health and well-being. Our family will never be the same. It has meant doing the best I can each day and being able to try again tomorrow. Although it’s not always possible to do things about my physical pain, I can practice resilience by working on how I interpret and respond to that pain. 

Often, the most manageable pain to deal with is how upset I become by my pain. I can do my best to regulate my nervous system, work to undo my own ableism, perfectionism, and capitalism (i.e. the need to be productive) and to rely on my faith. 

Before I could find some tiny bit of control over the interpretation of the pain, I had to imagine it. I had to imagine a world where we took each day as it came and did whatever we could do at that moment or that day. I imagined that playing video games with my child was just as good as running around with him outside. I imagined a family where most people’s needs are met most of the time. This imagination about living in the moment, after much practice and false starts, gave me the ability to use these skills as resilience. If things don’t work one way for my family, we can usually find another way to make them work. For example, if we’d planned to do something as a family such as go to a museum, but I’m having an awful day, we can still plan to spend family time at home around my naps. We can watch movies and play video games and still get family time. Learning to live in the moment is extra essential when my body changes what it’s capable of every moment. 

Community Imagination as Resilience 

For those times that my body simply can’t do anything but lay in bed and attempt to breathe, I have to rely on my community. Disability can be very isolating because of the hours and days in bed, friends my own age not understanding, and walking more slowly and behind everyone else. Often, I would imagine a community of people who would care for one another. After years of imagining something that felt impossible, my dreams have finally come true. I now live in community with a tight-knit group of queer friends who have formed a found family. We’ve adopted one another. Now, there are more resources to be shared. If one person can’t take me to the ER, another can. If I am so far down that I need resources outside myself, usually at least one person in my found family or among my wider friend group can provide them. Those of us who live near one another can drop things off for each other,  make plans to pick up medicine at the pharmacy where one person goes and gets meds for multiple people, and take each other to doctors’ appointments. 

I’ve lived without that kind of community for so long and spent so many years imagining it, wishing for it, dreaming of it. It’s part of the reason I survived these last three years. It’s part of the reason that part of resilience includes having a good life despite all the systemic barriers. 

It can be hard to learn to imagine a community and to teach communities to imagine. Many activists who write about anti-racism, and anti-oppression in general, encourage people to imagine a better world. What does a world with universal healthcare look like?  What would it look like and feel like if more people had more of their needs met?  What needs to change for that to happen?  While we alone can’t make those things happen on a large scale, small-scale communities, like my found family, can. We can support each other, help each other talk nicely to ourselves, remind each other to drink water and take our medicine. The world wants us to exhaust ourselves to death working and operating as individuals, but community support is necessary for resilience. 

My found family got together and imagined a way to be together. We live in three separate houses, but at any given moment we’ve all forgotten or kept things for one another. It’s kind of like a three-point parish, but we have a three-point family. 

This is also relevant to congregations. Sometimes, our ministries could be more resilient with more adaptability and imagination. Some people benefit from how things are currently set up in your congregation, and they like it that way. Some people may be imagining a new way of doing things, and often there is conflict between those groups. 

Developing a community imagination is essential for resilience in our communal lives. What if everyone in a congregation imagined something new into being?  What if the altar guild and men’s group started communicating better with one another as a baby step to imagining a stronger, more resilient community?  

After all, our God is a community in the Trinity. Even the Godhead doesn’t go it alone as an individual, as Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are the three-in-one. God created us in God’s communal image; He made us to live in a community.  Living in silos (and having our ministries in silos) is not helping us be resilient. Working together to solve problems is what gives us resilience. 

For example, in my local community, there is a Buy Nothing group where we as local neighbors trade things. It helps us imagine a world with less capitalism, saves struggling people money, helps people get to know one another, keeps things out of landfills, and all leads to us consuming less. This then helps lower the demand for production and climate change. There is also a Plus-Size Clothing Wardrobe where they take donations of time, money, and clothes in exchange for as many plus-size clothes as you can personally use. The person who created it imagined a world with less Fat Tax (you can Google that along with Poor Tax and Crip Tax) and a world where neighbors help one another. An entire community exists around the volunteers and events of the Wardrobe. Imagining things like this can give both individuals and a community more resilience, especially if you can find the resources to make your ideas into material reality. Sometimes that’s not possible, and sometimes it may take a lifetime. Based on my life experience, I firmly believe this imagining leads to significant resilience. 

Systemic imagination as resilience

One of my favorite things about our family and my wider friend group is that most consider nearly everyone our neighbor. We study anti-racism together. We learn about the oppressive structures that hurt, exhaust, and wear out all of us. We’ve learned that this is by design—if the system has us too busy fighting for survival, we won’t have the resources or resilience to change the system that works for very few people. People in power set up the system so that we, as humans without resources, are so busy fighting each other over scraps that we don’t solve the big problems and systems that keep us trapped this way. A considerable part of my disabled community’s resilience is knowing that our inability to get health care isn’t a personal failure because we’re unworthy of healthcare. The healthcare system simply can’t profit off of disabled folks, by design. It certainly can’t profit off helping us get healthy, and therefore it actively works to keep us sick by not covering the things that would improve our lives. 

Learning about the system is crucial to this resilience. Learning that beating myself up for needing a day in bed is really ableism and capitalism, gave me the ability to let it go and define a successful day in an achievable way. A key to learning to live with a disability was learning about ableism and the Social Model of Disability. (Once again, Google is your friend here.) 

Similar to learning about ableism, learning about anti-racism and my role in doing some small part of it was critical to my resilience during the racial justice uprisings during the pandemic while I was also fighting my own health battles. Sometimes, early in my journey, I’d get so overwhelmed with thinking that things would never change that I’d shut down. Learning that racism was here generations before me and will likely be for generations after me really helped. All I had to do was what I could do in the here and now to push things forward, which allowed me to imagine a better future for us all. I can’t end racism as an individual. Some days all I could do was read a book to learn more about it. Some days, I could only provide internet or GrubHub support to my protesting friends. Although I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do, I was able to imagine, through my learning about the system, that what I did mattered. 

And I didn’t do it alone; I did it in community with my organizing group. This makes all the difference. Too many things in this world depend on only one person, and when that person gets sick, things fall apart. Part of resilience in the world is doing something in a community such as learning about the system, doing what we can to change the system, and creating a more resilient life for everyone. 

Action Steps

Imagination—religious, individual, communal, and systemic—is what has given me the tools to find a way to get back up again. Over and over again. Every time I nearly die, I develop new skills and a new imagination. I can’t live without capitalism, but I can lower my dependency on it using the Buy Nothing Group and Clothes Pantry. I can’t always lower my physical pain, but I can lower my stress over the pain.

What can you imagine? What kind of resilience could you use more of in your life?  Where do things need to change in the world around you? What tiny steps can you take to make that happen? Can you imagine Jesus holding you up? Can you find some like-minded people to learn and grow with you? Can you learn to locate the systemic pressures on you in the system, instead of concentrating on your own failure to thrive in a system designed to keep you on the edge of survival?  

Consider this your invitation to take care of your nervous system by imagining your needs met, to take care of your community by dreaming together and imagining another way, to imagine how Jesus is with you in this life, how God created you to create, how the Holy Spirit will give you the power to imagine anything, and how we can all work together to create a better world where we are all more resilient together.

  • Jessica Harren

    Pastor Jessica Harren has been ordained for 11 years and served three calls, two interims, and started two intergenerational worshipping communities. The current one, Open Heart faith gathering, currently serves queer, disabled, trans, and neurodivergent folks. You can read more from her while she’s on disability at http://pastorjess.com.

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