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Resiliency: don't count on it

By John Spender - posted Friday, 6 May 2011

When I was asked to write about resiliency I thought I knew something about it. But I found – as I tried to order my thoughts – that I probably knew no more than anyone else who has lived for a good while and has marvelled at the capacity of individuals and societies to endure and bounce back from the sufferings and tragedies of life.

I did some research, which helped me greatly, and which I recommend to anyone interested in learning more about resilience.

What I now say - which is, so to speak, a backdoor approach to resiliency and how this quality should figure in the way Australians see themselves and plan for the future - I venture with caution and humility.


I have long been intrigued by the importance of myths in peoples’ lives. Anzac Day – our remembrance of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and of all wars Australians have fought in – has just passed. The mythology of the Anzac warrior is still at the heart of the image many Australians have of themselves and their society. It is, in fact, our own Australian resiliency myth: tough, resourceful, defeated, but unconquered.

All societies have their myths. Myths can generate a sense of pride and purpose, and of belonging to something transcendent, powerful and sustaining. And it is through the two-dimensional and seductive power of myths, and not by history, that many people see and explain themselves.

But myths are not the truth; they are, as psychologist Boris Cyrulink explains, truth’s enemy: “a culture tolerates only those historical accounts that reinforce its own myth.” Embedded in the psyche of a nation, myths forbid challenge and displace the multi-faceted, questioning, and unsettling voice of truth. People want to hear good stories about themselves, not bad ones, and in this we are no different to anyone else.

Americans think of themselves as an exceptional, Providence ordained society. The French believe in the unique values of their civilization, and the primacy of their cooking (in this they are unquestionably wrong). The British laud the Dunkirk spirit – all very fine but it was a defeat not a victory. In the lead up to war with Japan we believed in the myth of the invincibility of the British fleet and the impregnability of fortress Singapore. Sadly, the Japanese military knew better. Hitler sold to the German people the myth of the superiority of the “Aryan” race and its destiny to rule and subjugate Europe, and in the result almost destroyed European civilization. Mussolini convinced the Italians that they were the inheritors of the Roman legions. They weren’t .The big banks were just too big to fail. Really?

Myths exclude and devalue outsiders, and can sanction and inspire conduct reasonable observers would judge immoral or plain evil. Myths can also induce a state of suspension of critical faculties and an obdurate complacency: the ‘she’ll be right’ insouciance when we think of the future. But to think this way is like betting blind on the turn of a card.

That the French should think of themselves as pre-eminent cooks, or Frenchmen as inexhaustible lovers, are harmless enough conceits. But the big myths are something else.


Resilience is the core of the story of Anzac and all other stories we tell of Australians at war. I have not been to Anzac Cove but I have been to the battlefields of France where Australians fought, suffered and died in the First War. Their endurance through the long and desperate struggles over flat and pitiless landscapes was truly astonishing.

But we are not the inheritors of past acts of valour and endurance. The courage, and exploits of the warriors who fought in Australia’s battles belong exclusively to them, alone and individually, as do the sufferings, deaths, mutilations and terrors they endured. The most we can do is to pay homage to what they were and what they did.

Nor are we the same people. We are what we are: urban, unfit, overweight, drowning in and cosseted by a consumerist popular culture – not much different from our counterparts in other rich societies. And we have no idea, and no way to predict, how as a nation we would react in a time of great stress.

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About the Author

John Spender QC was the Member for North Sydney between 1980-1990. Positions held during opposition included Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Foreign Minister and Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives.

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