The National Catholic Review

From 30 May through 3 June, the World Science Festival is bringing together leading scientists, prominent artists, and influential thinkers to meet and dialogue in a series of public events in New York City. We are attending and covering four of these events.

Last night, Bill Blakemore of ABC News moderated “How We Bounce Back: The New Science of Human Resilience” at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium. The panel discussion focused on definitions of human resilience to traumatic events, factors which predict resilience, and to what extent people can increase it. The panel itself consisted of four participants: George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University; Fran Norris, a social psychologist at Dartmouth Medical School; Dennis Charney, an author and biological psychiatrist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine; and Matthieu Ricard, a French-born doctor of cell genetics turned Buddhist monk, currently residing in Nepal.

The participants put forward two models of human resilience. Bonanno and Charney generally described resilience as the ability to recover from a traumatic event to the point that the person functions as if the event had never occurred. Norris and Ricard favored a model of resilience as a process rather than an outcome. Overall, though, they left us with the impression that resilience is something rooted both in biology, through genetics and other chemical influences, and in sociology, through social support systems and personal character. The panel also emphasized that trauma is universal – whether through the dissolution of a marriage, death of a loved one, or some other loss – making resilience critical for everyone.

Fran Norris pointed out that stress is a natural, physiological, and psychological response to trauma and that the attempt to classify all stress as evil is misguided. The common approach to helping a person deal with trauma, by making the individual discuss it, does the person no good and often does her significant harm. Norris argued that this sort of mass-market psychology badly needs to be dismantled. Instead, a resilient person knows that her coping strategies are working for her, that she has support available, and that she can use her experience for the benefit of others. Making a person aware of those things helps her deal with trauma more effectively than the common wisdom of talking things out.

The glimpse of this emerging science of human resilience provided by this discussion raises a few questions for us Catholics. To what extent does the way we live our faith influence our ability to be resilient in the face of trauma? One area in which we do well is in education, one of the most highly positively correlated factors for predicting resilience. Two other positive influences on resilience are regular meditation and strong community support systems – an argument for the importance of prayer and of parishes as real communities.

The conversation about how a resilient person deals with trauma also has obvious implications for the practice of confession. Given the presenters’ argument that causing harm is far more traumatic than being harmed, and that forcing somebody to talk about trauma before they are ready to do so results in even more trauma, how ethical is it to demand that somebody confess a mortal sin before he has healed sufficiently to do so without causing himself further harm? How does the Sacrament of Reconciliation serve as a support for everyday Catholics? I don’t have answers to questions like these, but I think that they ought to be taken seriously.

Tonight, we will attend “The Elusive Neutrino and the Nature of the Cosmos.” Check back tomorrow for an update about the state of science concerning this elusive subatomic particle. We would also like to put in a plug for some family events tomorrow, 2 June. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, the World Science Festival will be hosting a day of science exploration. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. there will be events such as botanical safaris, places to learn an ancient fishing technique, and more. From 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. there will also be stargazing (telescopes provided!). If you’re looking for something for the kids to do tomorrow, the World Science Festival has got your back. Head over to http://worldsciencefestival.com/ for more details and events.