Exercise resilience

We spent yesterday afternoon destroying the porch on a peaceful old house.  We disturbed wasps, snakes and lizards and lost one worker to a sting.  We wore ourselves out and only revived with the help of the cold waters of a spring, hot showers and a good supper.

Running-to-Abi1We could have left the house, the wasps, the snakes and lizards in peace.  Why did we put ourselves and them through all that trauma?

Disturbance, trauma, upheaval, stress, pressure are difficult to accept.  We do our best to minimize them in our lives.  Physicians tell us reducing stress can save our lives.  Self-help gurus tout “20 ways to eliminate stress in your life” or “Ten relaxion techniques to reduce stress.”

When Meadowcreek was established back in the 1970s, huge numbers of young people were seeking to reduce the stress and trauma of modern life by going back to the land.  Don’t worry, be happy was our motto.  We’re seeing a resurgence of that impulse with the Millennial generation today.  Even those who don’t escape to the woods are taking up gardening and cooking to enjoy simple, peaceful lives.

Yet we also know it is good to occasionally cause disturbance and stress in ourselves.  We know exercise is good for us, increases our health, prolongs our lives.  Still we don’t want to do it.  We have to force ourselves to the gym or the porch that needs repair.  Our natural inclination seems to be: just let it be.

Yet, resilient systems are not peaceful, serene, calm. The mature forest may seem like a peaceful respite.  But unless it is disturbed regularly, it will accumulate so much dead wood that eventually an extremely hot fire will incinerate all life, causing erosion, loss of soil and a desolate, rocky landscape where trees cannot grow.

Resilient systems in nature regularly encounter disturbance.  It’s through disturbance that the system grows stronger, more resilient.  With competition between species, threats of disease, coping with changing weather and a myriad of other challenges, natural systems are continuously exposed to disturbances.  Resilient systems adapt to disturbances.  Non-resilient systems cease to exist.  “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

We have created a world where many are insulated from almost any natural disturbance and nearly everyone seems to be striving to increase their isolation from disturbance.   They can’t understand why people want to increase disturbance in their lives.

Two of the older residents of our valley are always incredulous when they hear I am going on another trip to Africa or the Near East.  Why do you want to put yourself through that?, they say.  Yet they keep fit in their 80s with regular exercise of baling hay, working with horses and innumerable other farming activities.  They are disturbing their lives in smaller ways than flying to Uganda, but they know that being constantly peaceful and at rest leads quickly to eternal rest.

All human systems need periodic disturbance to maintain resilience.  The country with the same leader for decades will decline.  A farm run by the same person in the same way will eventually  decline and die.  Management gurus say: after anyone has been the boss for ten years he should fire himself, no matter how good he is at his job.

Resilient systems embrace disturbance so they can be transformed into a better system.  Through coping with disturbance they learn more about ways to improve their system.

This is not embracing disturbance for it’s own sake.Some people see the benefits of exercise and become fanatics and destroy their health.  Others become obsessed with challenging themselves until finally they ruin their bodies with one extreme activity too much.  Some organizations embrace each new management fad until the staff is run ragged.

The trick to embracing disturbance is purpose.  The purpose of tearing down the porch yesterday was to take out rotted boards and make a stronger structure better able to withstand the weather.  The purpose of useful exercise is to strengthen the body and make it more capable of withstanding stresses.  I help farmers in developing countries because it helps me understand resilience more deeply.

So embrace disturbance, but embrace it with a purpose, not as an end in itself.   The purpose is to increase resilience in yourself, your farm, your family, your community, your ecosystem.  That’s the purpose which has been bred into life since it began.

Natural systems don’t have to be taught to embrace disturbance to increase resilience.  It’s part of their being.  Unfortunately, isolated from Nature, we must learn it anew.


For more on embracing disturbance for periodic transformation, see Chapter 4 of our free on-line book available at this link.