We all love the underdog. Hollywood has always been obsessed with comebacks, stories of resilience: people who come from a difficult situation and, against all odds, achieve what they set out to do. But, of course, the American Dream we see in The Longest Day and Elysium differs substantially from reality.
Much has been made in the media and in research about income divides and the challenge of "bouncing back" from inheriting challenging conditions. Here I'll not look at upward mobility—ably discussed by Jamie Smith last week—but rather at another major factor in resilience.
One of the great threats to resilience is being handed a tragic or traumatic event. The unexpected, blindside smack of a death in the family, or a loss of employment, or a major injury, can be too much for our normal coping mechanisms to handle on their own. The psychological research is clear about this: for resilience from trauma you need relationships, and close ones. The diagnosis that researchers continue to make for our lack of resilience is summed up by American sociologist Robert Putnam: too many people "bowling alone."
For my Master's thesis I looked at the idea of resilience, and what general factors helped people get through difficult events or situations in their lives. I interviewed individuals with low incomes in the north end of the city of Hamilton (Ontario). I spoke mostly to individuals who attended a food and clothing bank run by a church, Hughson Street Baptist Church.
Yes, personality differences and government programs seemed to be factors in building individual resilience. But the most common factor seemed to be Putnam's idea of social capital. When individuals had a strong network of family and friends, they were generally able to recover from hard times; when they did not have strong connections, they had to rely on unstable government or non-profit programs for their needs.
Government and non-profits can provide basic needs, but they usually don't do well at providing relationship.
Where did north enders go for relationship? One primary place: the local church. I wasn't surprised that many of my participants were involved in Hughson Street Baptist Church's programs since I recruited participants from that church's drop-in program (full disclosure: I attend Hughson Street Baptist Church). I was surprised how much the participants' lives revolved around the church. They often attended the church on Sunday mornings; but even if they didn't, they attended many different church programs, or they received material support from the church. For some, Hughson and its programs were the only chances they had to get out of the house and interact with people during the week. When talking about the church, participants used words such as "family", "community", "supportive", "love", and "friendship". The other main institution in the North End that participants saw as helpful, the new North Hamilton Community Health Centre, was constructed largely due to efforts from members of Hughson. Many members of Hughson also volunteer at the Health Centre.
There is much research outside of my own and Cardus's that suggests churches and faith-based organizations are vital to building social capital and increasing resilience in communities (see Putnam). Some churches have lost their sense of serving the common good, but, at least in Hamilton, these are exceptions. Churches are very often incubators of resilience in communities, especially for those most in need of grace and love.