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I have a sideways pear tree in my backyard.

It fell over some years ago before I moved here, so I don’t know what happened. But, by the time I moved in, it had developed a very different stance from what one normally expects of a pear tree. The main trunk, about 20 feet long, lies virtually flat on the ground, but still retains a viable root system at the base of the trunk. All along that horizontal trunk new water sprouts have sprung up, reaching up to the great blue sky above. Over some years they firmed up, becoming sturdier, pushing out their own branches that in turn pushed out their own leaves. For the past two summers the tree has produced pears.

Its determination to live true to its purpose as a pear tree greets me every morning as I wander out on the deck. The tallest branches – those original water sprouts – now sway high up in the sky – taller than the apple tree next to it.  What is that quality that caused it not to wither and die? What is that quality in so many of us that makes it possible to keep on keeping on?

Is it tenacity or is it resilience?

It is of course foolish to be anthropomorphic about a tree: It’s not like it can be motivated like a human can be. And so this isn’t really about the tree, although it is what triggered the question.  It’s an important question because there is a divide between tenacity and resilience and yet there is symbiosis too.

The one is characterized by determination; an iron will; single-mindedness; great clarity of purpose; even obstinacy.

The other is characterized by flexibility; recovery; the ability not to dwell on a failure or disappointment but instead to be able to frame positive lessons from an experience and build personal capacity to re-calibrate and move on.

It seems to me that to be successful in a world that changes as fast as ours does, where many of the changes arrive unexpectedly and where life and security seem to be more at risk than we would like, we need both tenacity and resilience. Yet there are pitfalls:

In the extreme, tenacity can be obstinate stubbornness that pulls you further and further into a hole, away from what you’re trying to be or to achieve.  Resilience, on the other hand, can result in such a level of mental double-jointedness that your twisted sense of what’s possible immobilizes you. The possibilities seem endless and they all look like they’d be fun to do.

Just imagine the extremes of these two characteristics at play at the same time:

You could end up with a bull-headed determination to attach yourself to whatever leader shouts the loudest. Then you follow them over the cliff, believing that you’ve found your divine destiny, even as you muse to yourself that this might be wrong and wondering why you didn’t contemplate some alternatives before it was too late.

Please don’t do that.

In being tenacious be courageous and keep a check on over-reach. Recognize, when  you keep on hammering in the same direction in the same way without achieving the desired result, that tenacity isn’t enough. Apply your tenacity under the canopy of resilience.  

In being resilient, be flexible, while remaining focused on the destination: sometimes the conclusion is ‘you can’t get there from here’. Fine. Where tenacity is about not giving up until it is the obvious thing to do, resilience is about finding a different way of getting it done. Sometimes it is tough-going and the temptation is to fall back and affirm the trite old saying about ‘you can’t get there….’ Before doing that, revisit your tenacity. Use tenacity in combination, and balance, with resilience. That’s what they’re there for.

As Kenny Rogers was wont to say:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

So the next time you reach out to pick up a delicious juicy pear – this very summer – think about the things you’ve achieved in your life by being tenacious and resilient, in a measured and balanced way. And then let us know about it here, in the comments section.

© Delphine du Toit 2018

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