Antifragile V: Break, don’t bend

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts

William Shakespeare – As you like it


I’m hearing a great deal more of the word Resilience nowadays. Already a buzz word, its been vibrating like crazy in the Covid era.  Making the economy more resilient, society more resilient. Former Rural Fire Service chief, Shane Fitzsimmons has recently been announced as the Resilience Commissioner. Resilience is being touted as the antidote to the mental health crisis that may occur along with the Coronavirus.

What is resilience? It is the property of an object to retain its structure and shape, even under stress. Unbreakability.

And while it is mostly a good thing to bend back into shape after stressful experiences, should we all remain resilient all of the time? What if it’s better to break sometimes?

My clients will often refer to themselves as broken. Defence force members, current or former, are particularly fond of this term. What does it mean to be broken? A broken pen no longer writes. A saw that is broken no longer cuts wood. What does a broken human no longer do?

Humans are a social animal and we have various social functions. We are safe and we are happy when we are contributing. We have an innate understanding of this value we provide, and we feel strong negative emotions when we feel we are not of value to others or society. Our identity is very much tied to our functions, our social roles, how we contribute. Teacher. Parent. Leader. Salesperson. Friend. We exist in relationship to others and to our social utility.

And what if we now can’t fulfil our old roles? What if our old roles are unavailable to us? What then for our identity?

Certain things are certain to break one’s identity. Industry shutdowns and job loss. Physical injuries and incapacity. The aging process. Children growing up and leaving home. Loved ones dying. Mental health problems?

Mental health problems are both a cause and consequence of identity loss. When our social role is taken from us involuntarily, we rebel. We don’t want our identity to break, we want to continue as always. Accepting broken identity feels like accepting death.

And some choose literal death when their identity has been disposed.

There has been a rash of suicides amongst former serving members of the Australian Defence Forces over the last 15 years. It is a tragedy, until recently a hidden one. This year the Prime Minister announced a royal commission into the issue.

I sometimes work defence members who are transitioning out of the armed forces. Most have strong feelings of trepidation about civilian life. Many have spent almost their entire careers as serving members. These people often have strongly entrenched identities based on their defence role. How will their identity make sense outside of a military structure?

Self and identity are not the same. As we move through time, we must allow our Self to transcend prior identities. Like an actor changing roles, our Selves play many parts. Our Selves assume different identities as required by the current stage of life and circumstances. The old identity is gone forever – but the self doesn’t need to die.

Be resilient: bend don’t break. Then, when your identity no longer works, break. The play has moved on and your role is no longer a central part of the scene. Your self will live to play another part – there is always life after identity loss. The next role you inhabit may be the most gratifying yet.

Be antifragile. When faced with role loss: shed your identity. The Self lives on. Break, don’t bend.


To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3

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