Of Resilience and Sparrows

Two house sparrows have nested in the bird house in my backyard. They are raising their second set of chicks right now. The first set died in early May. I had been watching the parents’ attentive flights in and out of the birdhouse, and the funny little wide-beaked heads poking out waiting for their meals. And then one day there were no little heads, and no more flights. The birds have tried again, as birds do. Nestlings have a breathtaking death rate. It isn’t only the house sparrows – there was the robins’ nest in the grape vine overturned in a storm and the ready-to-hatch eggs smashed on the porch, the featherless chick fallen from some unknown nest on the gravel walk, the birdhouse raided and knocked down by squirrels. There is also the juvenile starling I see every morning under the sedum and peonies, begging like any teenager for mom to serve up more snacks. I think that one’s going to do okay.

(The river of death running through my backyard brings to mind the Kahlil Gibran poem that contains the line “your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.” I mutter those lines to myself a lot in the garden.)

There is a work-a-day word for the ability to make a new nest when the storm has knocked the old one down: resilience. This is the ability to roll with challenges, to right your boat when it is swamped by waves. Resilience isn’t being so big the waves can’t touch you, or building a nest so strong it can’t be overturned, or knowing so much you can’t be bested. Resilience is having the flexibility, self-belief, social network, and doggedness to regroup when everything has been scattered.

There are courses and books and degrees and institutes dedicated to community and organizational resilience. What interests me is how we can build little nodes of resilience within organizations and structures over which we don’t have power. Sure, in the end, that makes those organizations and structures stronger. But in the immediate term, the benefit of resilience accrues to us, to our colleagues, to each other.

What do I mean, really, by resilience in the workplace? Let me think of some actual examples. How about the staff member whose project was ending, facing a time with uncertain funding, who volunteered to lead a difficult process she had only participated in once before? With a choice of jumping ship or building herself a new boat, she built the boat. It was a good boat, too. Or the colleague who saw her contribution to the paper (a contribution she labored over) thrown out because she hadn’t quite understood what was needed? She was disappointed, but in the wake of the disappointment she worked on framing papers and the next one was better. This kind of refusal to be broken and deterred by failure and loss is what I mean by resilience. It isn’t avoiding vulnerability and risk, but finding a way to navigate through them.

While each of us can build our own resilience, we are more resilient as a group than we are as individuals. In the cases above, it wasn’t just the staff members’ resilience that mattered, but the willingness of their colleagues to be flexible and take risks. In a more rigid workplace, one more bunkered and entrenched with protective layers of formality and process, perhaps we wouldn’t have risked ourselves (our project’s reputation, our paper’s publishability) for each other.

As of now, the house sparrow’s second set of chicks live. Their eyes are open, and they look out of the bird house alertly, with none of the hatchling’s floppy vulnerability. They will fledge soon, and face a whole new set of risks and dangers. I hope they will not, this summer, become the sap that feeds the tree of heaven (literally feeding the hawks, I suppose) but whether they live or die I am quite sure that same pair of house sparrows will try again, and again, and again.

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