A couple of weeks into the social distancing measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I suddenly lost a significant amount of hearing in both ears. This followed a period of flu symptoms and self-isolation, as well as the sudden arrival of my boyfriend from abroad as an unexpected live-in (and quarantine) partner in my tiny studio apartment. Following repeated trips to the doctor, I regained the full functioning of my left ear, but as of this writing, continue to experience hearing loss on my right side, as well as tinnitus (ringing inside the ear) and disorientation. As someone who has in recent years begun to experience chronic illness and disability, this was dismaying, to say the least.
Until this sudden change in sensory ability, I had managed to maintain a surprising amount of centredness amidst the chaos, drama, and trauma of the pandemic. Through skills developed over years of mental health and somatic study, and no small amount of economic privilege (access to work from home has never been more clearly identifiable as privilege than right now), I was able to ride in the “calm eye of the storm,” as I like to call it. I was able to maintain my strong centre, a clarity and purpose, a sense of internal balance in a shifting world. I was able to keep doing things, producing work, caring for others.
Losing part of my hearing – hopefully but not necessarily temporarily – was the end of that. Sensory neurons in the inner ear are largely responsible for proprioception: the ability to balance, orient, and identify the position of one’s body in space. On an emotional and spiritual level, hearing is for many (though not all) of us an intrinsic part of communicating with others and connecting to the physical world. The sudden threat to this connection, in the middle of a global crisis, resulted in extreme anxiety for me, for a sudden collapse into terror and despair.
In the mental health field, the concept of “resilience” is most often understood as the ability to live through extremely stressful events without manifesting the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or other forms of clinical trauma. Yet in mainstream culture, and even in day-to-day mental health practice, this concept is often reduced to an individual’s ability to maintain a semblance of “normalcy,” “functioning,” or “emotion regulation” in situations of crisis or hardship.
Resilience is also often linked with adherence to dominant culture values – we characterize impoverished youth who do well in school as resilient while we demonize young people who engage in criminalized activities, even though those activities may in fact represent a source of strength, survival, and community in an oppressive society.
In the pandemic era, we are seeing a push toward resilience narrativized as “the ability to continue doing work, giving care, paying rent and bills, keeping calm, and carrying on.” We are seeing government officials and experts and influencers telling us that we need to maintain our working lives and the economy, that we ought to be making use of quarantine time to enhance our working abilities, that we should continue to support a capitalist and colonial system of government that has for centuries used domination and exploitation to enrich a few at the expense of the many.
I am not resilient like that. I simply can’t be resilient like that – my body is soft, is breakable, is fallible, is failing now in a most disconcerting way at the least convenient time possible. That is what the virus is showing us – that we are fragile, that we are not immune to danger and disorientation. The body knows this. Our bodies have known weakness and vulnerability since the day they were born, since before. Our bodies know how to collapse in the face of overwhelming threat, often in such a way that reduces or minimizes the damage. I think this, too, can be a kind of resilience.
How can we think about resilience as strategic weakness? How can we embrace somatic experience of fragility while also honoring the pain of being broken? I am thinking about how much I have pursued a rigid form of strength as a transgender woman of colour – how I have sought to endure intense pain and overcome unbeatable odds in order to prove to myself that I am resilient. I have done some amazing things – just like every other trans person I know.
Yet I am also, in my community, surrounded by the embodiment of trauma, of breaking: Chronic pain, mental illness, socioeconomic vulnerability. There is great power and wisdom in frailty. It forces us into connection, awakens us to our own need for care and interdependence. It shows us our limits and boundaries, illuminates the terrible ways in which dominant society attempts to turn us into working machines.
Disability theory and activism was born out of this wisdom, and it remains one of the greatest teachers for activists and community organizers: The industrial complex model of society is, and has always been wrong. The demand for resilience as production, reproduction, and assimilation has always been destructive, at times even genocidal, in its effects. We are still worthy of life, of love, no matter what our bodies can do.
I have always been strong. I have always been brave. I can let myself be soft, too, can be strong in my weakness. I can be brave in my breaking. This, too, is resilience.