Can you learn vital life lessons from a satirical American animated sitcom about a rather dysfunctional family? Quite possibly. At least, for me, I have gained many insights into the human condition and everyday life from watching the antics and challenges of the Springfield working-class family. Yes, The Simpsons is a made-up, unreal cartoon. Yet, many of the issues addressed during the last 28 seasons are very real and relevant.

You might be surprised that one of the themes which runs through the long-running sitcom is resilience. And resilience is more than just how such an incompetent worker as Homer can somehow hold down a job at a nuclear power facility. 

So what is this thing resilience? The term used to have something to do with bouncing back from adversity, in the same way a carton character picks itself up after being flattened. But a human being isn't a slinky, a basketball or a pillow that returns to its original form after being crushed, squashed, or punched.

The old understanding of resilience emphasized coming back from failure fast. Really fast. When the notion of resilience first gained popularity, it was illustrated by the scene of a woman just receiving news that her boyfriend had broken up with her, and she runs out onto the street yelling 'Who's next?'

However brave and courageous this might seem, this rapid come back from a setback or failure doesn't give time or space for reflection; instead, it seems to reflect one of society's requirements about loss: replace it as soon as possible. Rather than experience the pain or sadness, we rush to forget. The problem with this approach is that relationships involve emotions, and we can't just replace one with another like a light bulb.

So if resilience isn't about quick-fix solutions to adversity or disappointment, then what are we talking about?

Another quality associated with resilience is strength, particularly developing our inner strengths to cope with significant — sometimes dramatic — change. But standing strong, or giving the appearance of being unwavering for the sake of others, can mask our inner turmoil and turbulence, leading to other problems later on. Yet it is often the advice we are given by others when the going gets tough — to show some fortitude, grit, and self-restraint, particularly when it comes to emotions. But being stoic, and keeping a 'stiff upper lip' seems to be a form of denial when you don't acknowledge the challenge or threat.

So if resilience isn't really about bouncing back quickly, or being staunch and strong, what exactly is it?

I believe resilience is made up of our attitude and our abilities. That's right, the bigger picture of our worldview and our connectedness in it, as well as the skills and awareness which we can pick up, learn, and improve. As shown in The Simpsons, having self-belief that you will get through these testing times and be able to rebuild your life — no matter what — is at the core of being resilient. And the skills of being agile and able to adapt are part of our ability to cope, whether we are dealing with trauma, relationship problems, health issues or financial crises.

Maybe you've noticed in your own life or from what you've observed of others, that people facing the same problems as you often deal with them quite differently. So why is it that some people seem to handle extreme stress and hardship reasonably well, while others fall apart? If you want to work out how you might cope with a seemingly unbearable situation, just look back on the past and how you've handled stressful situations, both big and small. By examining how you've responded and reacted in the past to adversity, you might have clues to how you might cope, and what your preferred way or style of dealing with change and setbacks might be.

But there's another important factor that we might not dare to consider: our worldview. There is a sobering reality about life that is sometimes hard to take. Despite all we've picked up from our parents, school, and society about this thing called Life, it may take a significant personal life event to make us realize that what we thought we had signed up for might be an illusion. And that the truth may even seem unfair and devoid of any meaning.

What is that life lesson? That, sometimes, 'shit happens'.

But wait, there's more. Sometimes there are no answers, just lots of questions. Sometimes it seems the world is going crazy, and there is no sense whatsoever. When our own theories about life, the universe, and everything are shattered, we need to re-examine what the deal is. For example, if we've believed that the world was generally a good, just place, where the laws of karma and attraction apply, what happens when something bad happens to us? I think often in our goal-oriented, achievement-based culture, we don't know how to deal with loss, because we've never regarded it as part of life, let alone an inevitable reality of life.

Sometimes, without warning, seemingly random and unexpected things happen to us. For me, it happened two years ago, when I got a call in the middle of the night from my parents.

"There's some bad news," my mother said down the line, from the other side of the world. And there was a long pause. "Your brother Ian . . . he's died."

News of this sudden — and still mysterious and unexplained — death sent me into shock. How could such a terrible thing happen? I wondered.

If there is some glimmer of hope, some light at the end of the tunnel, then it is this: you will get through. We humans have this remarkable quality of being able to make it through the darkest days. We do much better than what we — and others — often think, given the circumstances.

This adaptability and flexibility doesn't come from chanting mantras, looking on the bright side, or sticking positive affirmations to your bedside cabinet. It comes instead from fully and authentically experiencing the whole roller coaster of thoughts, emotions and bodily manifestations knowing in our minds and hearts that going through it is the way through — and that everything is changing and ephemeral. To be present and mindful, when we'd much rather be in the past, avoid the issue, or numb our feelings, is to be fully human. As well as realizing that nothing is fixed, it is also important to acknowledge that not everything can be fixed or solved. There are no shortcuts. It can get messy and ugly.

There's one more aspect of resilience that is often neglected, when we focus on the individual and their abilities to manage the situation. Resilience is not just a personal skill set, it is influenced by those around us, friends, family, co-workers, and the communities we interact with. Having supportive relationships will improve resilience.


There was an episode of The Simpsons, 'Kamp Krusty', when the summer camp the children have been sent to turns out to be a slave-labor hell. Lisa writes to her parents describing the Dickensian workhouse and the nature hikes which have become 'grim death marches,' noting that Bart holds out hope that their predicament of being fed gruel and having to make wallets for export will end. Eventually, Bart leads a rebellion, and Lisa reveals one of the truths of resilience: "I no longer fear Hell," she declares.

That perhaps is one of the unexpected benefits of experiencing trauma, tragedy, and terror. In getting through and dealing with adversity, many of the fears we had drop away, as we appreciate the mysterious ways of life, the bittersweetness of this human condition, and our remarkable resilience.



Keith Lyons is an award-winning journalist, author and writing mentor who writes about people, places and well-being. His forthcoming book 'What No One Told Me About Grief' will be published in 2018, and he is currently compiling 'Grief 101' which examines the toughest questions about grief and loss answered by experts and survivors. You can find about him at and follow him on Twitter at @griefwise.

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