Cultivating Resilience in the Face of Uncertainty

We were jammed together, pressed into the subway car like sardines in a can. I’ll never forget the look of uncertainty in the face of the young woman standing next to me. I saw my own fear reflected in her eyes as we both struggled to stay on our feet.

The train operator’s voice broke through the din as passengers continued to try to squeeze into the train, asking people on the platform to step back, to wait for the next train. There would be another train, he assured.

The crowd was not so sure.

That Tuesday morning had dawned sunny and bright in Washington, D.C. It was the second week, the 11th day, of September, 2001. The air was thick with humidity and promised to turn into the kind of day that seersucker suits were made for.

I rode the Washington Metro down to the Capitol South station, exiting at the southeast corner of the Cannon House office building, walking uphill to Independence Avenue, the grand cupola of the U.S. Capitol Building dominating the skyline to my left. I, however, took a right to the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. That is where my orientation as a congressional science fellow was scheduled that day.

What happened that day caught everyone unaware – at least those of us who do not work in the intelligence community or the military.

As planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in northern Virginia, our world changed forever – not for the first time, and certainly not the for the last.

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We were jammed together, pressed into the subway car like sardines in a can. I’ll never forget the look of uncertainty in the face of the young woman standing next to me. I saw my own fear reflected in her eyes as we both struggled to stay on our feet.

The train operator’s voice broke through the din as passengers continued to try to squeeze into the train, asking people on the platform to step back, to wait for the next train. There would be another train, he assured.

The crowd was not so sure.

That Tuesday morning had dawned sunny and bright in Washington, D.C. It was the second week, the 11th day, of September, 2001. The air was thick with humidity and promised to turn into the kind of day that seersucker suits were made for.

I rode the Washington Metro down to the Capitol South station, exiting at the southeast corner of the Cannon House office building, walking uphill to Independence Avenue, the grand cupola of the U.S. Capitol Building dominating the skyline to my left. I, however, took a right to the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. That is where my orientation as a congressional science fellow was scheduled that day.

What happened that day caught everyone unaware – at least those of us who do not work in the intelligence community or the military.

As planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in northern Virginia, our world changed forever – not for the first time, and certainly not the for the last.

News reports that there was a fourth plane, believed to be headed toward the U.S. Capitol, led the Capitol police to evacuate the complex. Members of Congress, staff members, visitors and tourists were told to leave immediately and seek safety.

There are approximately 10,000 people who work on the Hill and the ensuing traffic snarls and people streaming toward the Metro station or heading off into the neighborhoods on foot looked and felt like chaos.

It wasn’t panic. Most of us managed to keep some semblance of composure. But we didn’t know what was going on – no one did.

Were the reports of car bombs detonating near the State Department accurate? Was that fourth plane really headed to Washington, D.C.? Would there really be another train arriving at the subway station if I didn’t get on this one?

This lack of knowledge was a real problem. Unsure whether there were additional threats in our midst, it was difficult for federal and local leaders to know how to respond. Because when you start looking for vulnerabilities in an open society, you find them everywhere.

Another Threat

Why am I relaying this nearly two-decade-old story?

Today we’re confronted by another invisible threat, one that we are still trying to figure out. The spread of the Covid-19 virus from China to South Korea, Iran and Italy and concerns about the potential for global pandemic are forcing officials to respond in a situation with many uncertainties.

The natural and reflexive response in these circumstances is to harden the system to protect people and institutions.

In Washington, D.C. in 2001, seemingly overnight every major government building was surrounded by a wall of concrete Jersey barriers. Flashing blue lights marked every major thoroughfare into the District of Columbia as police kept vigil, monitoring who was coming in and out of the nation’s capital, and there were anti-aircraft missiles tucked behind the trees in the Pentagon parking lot.

Air travelers could no longer be met at the gate due to enhanced airport security screening; magnetometers were installed everywhere from courts to museums; and amid all this new security, each of us individually confronted the uncomfortable reality that we were more vulnerable than we realized.

That vulnerability is back today. Heading back on the road, my wife asked me last night whether I was going to wear a face mask in public spaces, and whether I had hand sanitizer to help limit my potential for exposure. Good precautionary measures, to be sure, but it is still early days in our understanding of this virus and its potential for causing widespread illness.

As weeks and months passed after the 9/11 attacks, the attention of my bosses on Capitol Hill began to expand from direct response to prevention. We started talking about resilience.

Resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; or the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape.” Toughness and elasticity also describe these qualities.

Yes, we must harden systems where possible. Closing obvious vulnerabilities is critical. But hardened systems also reduce flexibility. At the extreme they can be stifling and brittle. And we cannot reduce the risks of life to zero, so we must cultivate the ability to bounce back when something bad happens.

Weavers and Rippers

How do we cultivate this quality?

Well, it’s not by following the lead of politicians. Here in the United States, the presidential campaign provides an unfortunate display of what happens when political systems are hardened.

Politics at the national level these days is dominated by what New York Times columnist David Brooks call the “rippers.” With this approach the emphasis is on – rather than policy – drawing clear delineations between people. It’s not a campaign about ideas, but rather about differences. One attack begets another attack and soon we’re spiraling downward in a destructive game of name-calling.

But, as Brooks writes in “The Second Mountain” (see this column last May) and in many of his subsequent columns, the antidote to this division are the “weavers.” Weavers take the real differences between ideas and people and look for the ways to weave them together into something stronger.

Weavers are more frequently found at the grassroots – at the level of community. They’re the mayors and councilmembers, the ministers, teachers, and civic leaders that are too busy solving problems, trying to fix things, to engage in name-calling. And it is through this weaving process that resilience begins to grow.

Let’s bring this closer to home.

As I have written about frequently on this page, AAPG continues to look for ways to rejuvenate and fulfill its mission in a world where conditions are changing rapidly for petroleum geoscientists. With members scattered far and wide, AAPG has the potential to become more resilient as an organization. But it’s the weavers that will help us reach that potential, not the rippers.

And when times are tough, as they are right now for many of our members, that’s not the time to stop. Let’s keep pushing – together.

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