These easy-to-recognize stone statues from Rapa Nui are called moai. Their small wooden counterparts are called moai-miro.
In sustainability work, we define a difference between sustainability and resilience. The distinction is subtle, but important: a system (or a person) could display one or the other, both, or neither.
Sustainability is how possible it is to remain on our current course, without considering too deeply potential upsets to our world; resilience, on the other hand, is how quickly we bounce back from a shock.
These two concepts are necessarily interrelated, and they invite us to consider the impacts of our choices. Sustainability seems to take the noble long view, while resilience focuses in on the present shock to our system and how to respond.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about resilience. About problem solving and patience and the fact that in the heat of the moment you can’t go back in time and prepare for what lies ahead. As I enter a new season of my life—full of sunshine, a new home, a new job description, and a new way of being in the world with the end of the pandemic perhaps in sight—I’ve been mulling over the last year and a half. I’m rereading my journals from March 2020, looking back at a presentation I gave on sustainability and resilience, and listening to a whole lot of RadioLab.
The RadioLab episode that aired the weekend of my belated 2020 graduation, entitled “The Dirty Drug and the Ice Cream Tub,” was the scientific and personal history of an immunosuppressant called rapamycin. The gist of the episode is that this drug, rapamycin, was found accidentally from the synthesis of soil on Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island) and written off by scientists when they discovered that it stopped all cells’ growth, not just bad cells. After all, who would want to stop your immune system?
But one researcher stole a sample from the lab before it was destroyed. He literally kept it in an ice cream container in his personal freezer for five years before the medical community started to think “actually, maybe there is a use for this.” After much research, they found that rapamycin works by attaching to a previously unknown protein that Latif Nasser describes as the “general contractor” of living cells—the little gizmo that decides if the cell has enough resources to grow or has to sit tight and make use of what it already has.
In true RadioLab fashion, they wrap up their episode with some commentary on the fact that our cells are physically incapable of recycling and reusing old nutrients at the same time that they grow: this little General Contractor Protein has to choose between developing new things or using what’s already on hand.
I sat in silence for a few minutes after the episode ended, reflecting on the unique combination of growth and stagnation that has been my—well, probably everyone’s—reality for the last eighteen months. It made me wonder if I as a whole person, like my individual cells, must choose between new growth and old growth, and what “recycling” my experiences might even mean.
I think I finally settled on my own personal flavor of resilience that lets the two things coexist, a rapamycin-philosophy that says not that I must choose between growth and recycling, but rather that I cannot grow without recycling.
This last year has been hard. Really hard, some days. Despite that, when I reflect on this season I can see glimmers of growth—taking more breaks, setting better boundaries, giving more grace—that would not, could not, have happened without this unique year. And I know that the only reason I’ve seen any growth in the last year is because of the resilience I cultivated without knowing it.
I built strong relationships with people I trust, I went to therapy and got to know myself better, I practiced being a healthier human with the help of a strong community. My growth this last year has depended on reminding myself of what I learned before and finding ways to lean into and recycle good habits, repurpose old conversations, and reuse mantras that have served me well.
This idea of preparing for something you can’t expect reminds me of Genesis 41: Joseph first recognizes the Pharaoh’s dreams as prophetic of seven rich and seven lean years, and then says “let us prepare well.” In that moment, General Contractor Joseph did what our cells can’t—he looked ahead to find a way for the Egyptians to reuse and build from scratch at the same time. Somehow, his vision for sustainability made his people more resilient.
A little-known fact about Rapa Nui is that the giant Easter Island heads are not the only statues on the island. There are almost as many small, wooden, emaciated statues as giant heads, and anthropologists think that art is a reflection of the Rapa Nui’s experiences of feast and famine.
In this time where I’ve felt so distant from and angry with God, somehow his provision and my resilience are … enough. Not all my habits are sustainable (emotionally, environmentally, or otherwise), but I will try to find ways to remind myself of his goodness. I will try to find ways to recycle this growth, too, in the days—and weeks, and months—ahead, knowing that what I build now will prepare me for whatever else is in store.
I’m sure the famine was still hard, even with the storehouses of supplies. I’m sure the Egyptians wished they could have prevented it instead of prepared for it. But I have no doubt their survival depended on God’s good planning, and their ability to recycle and grow at the same time.
Lillie grew up on a forty-acre hay farm in Central Oregon, making the trek to Michigan to study mechanical engineering and sustainability. After graduating in 2020, she moved to Rochester, NY, where her day job as an engineer for the local gas utility funds her outdoor adventures, love of books, various craft projects, and investment in her new community.
I often struggle with habits or even jobs that seem one-off, things that I do for a season and then seem to cast off. As I’m getting older, I try to intentionally look for how I’m fit those old habits and skills and building on them, but I like your use of the word recycling for that. It’s a beautiful idea—that even in our lives, everything is conserved.
What a fascinating bit of trivia turned thought analysis. It’s curious thinking that most people would say that “growth” is more important, but there is something to be said about “recycling.” Making new what once was, refining it, repurposing it.
May you also find meaning in your own growth in the years to come. May you find happiness in it, and surprises that make it worthwhile. May you have sustainability and resilience and find contentment in who you are becoming.