Retreat & Resilience

by Antonio Dias

I was asked to look at these two terms as a simple request without any elaboration.

This is an interesting way to enter into a form of dialogue. For the one asking it does not limit the answer to any preconceptions they might otherwise bring. For the one answering there is the wide open space around a collision of two words to look at without any reflexive influence to challenge or agree with any possible assumptions attached by the one asking.

Typing the word collision, I just realized it also appears to share a root with collage, to return momentarily to a recent preoccupation. We tend to see a collision as a violent action that causes things to break apart – its actual root being to “com- + laedere, to injure by striking” – but it can also be a way to join things together. As with a collage, in which things are thrown together, they collide and form new contexts, or at least illuminate the emptiness of their original context, there are other sorts of collisions that cause things to adhere and then possibly cohere.

Is that what’s happening with these two terms, retreat and resilience? We’ll see.

As with collision and collage, retreat and resilience share a prefix. While colla has to do with gluing together, re has to do with doing again.

Retreat’s origins are in the Latin re-trahere, to re-draw, to withdraw. Interesting that we are back in art! We are in a world of palimpsest. A retreat may not successfully or completely erase an original mark-making, but it is an act that seeks to contradict, to say against, to un-say, a previous action.

Resilience, interestingly, could also be seen as coming from art, this time dance perhaps. Its root is re-salire, to jump back.

Right off the bat we see that both terms have to do with responding, reacting, adjusting to a dynamic situation that has put some thing, some one, in an untenable position. It’s no wonder these are both terms we hear used frequently today when so much is proving to be overdrawn and unable to bounce back.

Of course, both terms are surrounded by assumptions – as are all the words we use. A retreat is seen as a sign of defeat. It may be preferable to a rout or a massacre in place, but it does assume that the force and drive of one’s will has been thwarted. Resilience has an automatic assumption of its being a good thing. After all, that which is resilient does not break easily. Both these assumptions tend to be useful within a self-world-view that has traction in the world as it is. When that self-world-view has become dysfunctional these assumptions tend to hold us trapped in old habits. At a time like the present we need to be wary of accepting them without looking at them more closely.

Retreat is not simply to withdraw, it is to re-draw. Inherent in it is the realization that the previous sally – that word stems from the same root salire as resilience! – has not been effective. It has within it the implication that we will sally-forth again.

With our oversensitivity to “chaos” whenever we confront complexity and respond with the impatience of thinking it is merely complication, we tend to want to avoid palimpsest. We want a clean sheet with a strong unequivocal line marking force and direction. That this is a violence upon the truth, no such condition actually exists, everything is complex beyond the possibility of complete understanding and therefore all we can aspire to is a series of sallies that create a field of possibilities. In this we find that we have created palimpsest and in so doing we approach the truth within a world in which probability and entanglement are always at work. In this way retreat is not a defeat at all. It is an engagement with what is at a higher level than our customary wish for simple and direct.

Now if we treat our situation as something we strive to maintain in stasis, and if we see each retreat as a defeat, then we are increasingly more brittle. The opposite habit, of accepting and even relishing the drawing and redrawing, the sally followed by another sally, in another direction, or with a slightly different twist; we grow more flexible, we become more resilient.

But this is only one aspect of our situation illuminated by these terms. Resilience is not always beneficial, even when we take a rather narrow view of what is good or useful. This is another aspect of our current situation that makes it dangerous. While so much around us is proving to be ultimately untenable, these forces, institutions, modes of thought and ways of being are proving to be remarkably resilient in the short term! Without this resilience we do not reach overshoot.

When something is just resilient enough, it breaks as it becomes dysfunctional. This removes its destructive force or influence before there is the chance for further, and possibly, irreparable harm. But this is not the situation we find ourselves in! The colossus clashing all around us are quite resilient, remarkably so. They do not appear ready to “go quietly into the night.”

Within my own being, I’ve been lucky to have lacked the resilience to be a two-pack-a-day smoker, or a quart-a-day “functioning” alcoholic, or capable of maintaining any sort of addiction at a level where it would consume me and eventually kill me. My lack of those sorts of resilience meant that I had to retreat from those behaviors well before they would have taken me past a point of no return.

So, resilience is useful, but by no means absolutely so!

This realization can inflect how we look at retreat. What separates a retreat from a rout or a massacre is the willingness to accept its necessity before one’s resilience has been totally consumed. Those who wait and continue to rely on their resilience too long do not have the luxury of retreat. They are simply destroyed by the forces arrayed against them.

An aspect of resilience, at a deeper level, is this sense of bending more than might appear necessary to counter an existing force. This bending further may appear to be weakness, but if it leaves open the possibility for retreat as opposed to continued resistance ensuring destruction, then this sign of weakness is actually an intelligent use of one’s strengths.

The death of a thousand cuts. Situations that call for retreat are often chaotic in appearance. They involve lots of small blows seemingly coming from everywhere. No one is enough to destroy us by itself, but taken together we are harried. Retreat in these circumstances is not a result of reacting to a single overwhelming force but responding to an untenable situation by drawing-again, by re-drawing, retreat. Removing one’s self from the source of irritation and confusion allows us to regroup. It also demonstrates Bohm’s “diligence.” We are “taking pains” to sort out our situation and we are not being inattentive – inattention being another way of looking at the state of confusion brought on by our “thousand cuts.” Remember, it’s not “them” who are “making” us angry or confused or inattentive. We do these things to ourselves. And since this is true, the most direct field of action is to do what is in our power to change this. We remove ourselves from the conditions that lead to our inattention and restore our attention.

Let’s follow this from another perspective. David Bohm likened our overall predicament to a situation in which a stream is polluted. If we remain reactant we continue to look for ways to “clean” the water downstream from the point at which it is being polluted. Such efforts are futile. This is plainly clear. We are in Shakespearean territory here! “Out Out Damn Spot!” No amount of scrubbing will do anything but smear the stain around.

Yet this is what we do continually. We ignore anything that calls attention to the futility of this course. “That’s pessimistic!” “I need hope!” “Don’t disillusion me!” We strive to maintain whatever scope we can fool ourselves into thinking we have because to do anything else would be to retreat! Would be to loose our resilience.

Yet, any such effort can only end in destruction. We know that. Remaining within dysfunctional illusions out of desperation only enforce our continued degradation. This is the ultimate force driving corruption. Remember that before corruption was “the-way-of-the-world, quid-pro-quo with a-wink-and-a-nod,” it was rotting, disintegration. It still is that, and this is how it works.

Bohm suggests that if the original source of the pollution we strive to clean up is in how we misinterpret thought and are taken in by the illusion of a self, and then, all the divisions and conflicts that arise out of this original error, this pollution of the stream: Why don’t we remove this source directly?

To do so is demonstrably not a futile action. By recognizing and acting on the insights regarding our emotional proprioception, that we “do” these things to our selves; and by seeing that unlike the projections outward onto the other that keep distracting us and dividing our attention into ever smaller scraps, ever greater levels of inattention/confusion; this is something we can actually affect.

Does removing a source of pollution immediately eradicate all of its effects? No, of course not. So, the evidence of continued outcomes that continue to flow through the system will inevitably continue to present themselves well after their origin has been shut-off. But while our Ego cries out for us to maintain the illusion of its existence and efficacy using all these examples as its “evidence;” it cannot offer us anything but a continuation of the present conditions and their ultimate worsening to the point of general and complete destruction.

Removing the source does have an immediate effect. Lifting the weight of futility off our shoulders and opening us to sources of strength that Ego’s striving keep out of our reach, does put our attention squarely on what is at issue and on an arena in which we do have agency. Letting go of striving, retreating, and looking at the complexity of issues of resilience; all work to strengthen our attention and remove sources of inattention.

What more can we ask for?

What more do we need?