Two very different stories have made me think about the idea of what makes for strength or resilience in a person. The one was a true story told to me by an Indian
friend and the other was Nick Hornby’s novel, A Long Way Down (Penguin, 2006).
Nasreen told me about her mother, a woman who, through Nasreen’s story, I grew to admire and wish I could have met. We are influenced by the modelling of our parents and Nasreen too, is a strong and courageous woman, although I suspect that she doesn’t think of herself in that way.
Nasreen’s mother was widowed while carrying her. In the midst of grief she gave birth to Nasreen while also caring for her older children. How does a young woman,
whose life has been upended not only by the death of her husband but also by the traditions and requirements of Indian family life that requires the widow to live in the
home of her in-laws as a dependent, adjust? The grief is compounded by the loss of independence and ability to decide on the management of your home and loss of
Fortunately her husband’s brother recognised that she needed to change her circumstances and urged her to migrate to England. Imagine what resources, personal and material, are required to uproot from one protected culture (that of traditional Indian family and their mores) to another where one is without language and the embedded cultural knowledge. But she found them and moved to London with her young family. Imagine the loneliness and isolation she must have felt; imagine the courage to continue with the decision. She had to make it work. She enrolled in English classes and then found employment so that she could support her children, ensure their education and she eventually was able to buy her own home.
Nasreen tells of her own experiences as a 10 year old at school where she had limited language and found herself disadvantaged in the classroom as a result. Because of this she was unsuccessful at the 11+ exams and had to learn to deal with the prejudices and assumptions that she was not all that bright. Only many years later, after significant setbacks, was she able to go to university as a mature aged woman and graduate in an area of her choice and find employment that pulled on her intelligence and skills.
What is it that keeps us going in the face of difficulty? What is it that keeps people, fleeing warfare, destitution and tyranny, optimistic and hopeful that they can find a safe haven and re-establish their life? Many of these people have lost everything: family, friends, material wealth, sense of self and identity.
Nick Hornby addresses these questions through four middle class people. When everything is bleak and you feel that life is not worth living, what can save you from
yourself? Is suicide the only way out? And in choosing suicide, does this really mean that you want to die, or simply escape your circumstance? If you choose to be
saved from the decision not to take your life, what do you learn about yourself and do you have the courage to pursue the lessons? None of Hornby’s characters are
faced with the problems of the magnitude of Nasreen’s mother or of a refugee. That does not make the questions any less relevant. The characters must confront
themselves, find the courage to change, and find a way of moving forward.
Hornby’s characters and Nasreen’s mother challenge us to examine what psychologists call resilience – the resources that we pull on from within and without that help us deal with the difficulties of life whether their origins are within ourselves, environmental or circumstantial.
In physics resilience is referred to as the ability of something that has had some physical impact that changes it (pulling or stretching) to return to its original
state. In psychology resilience refers to the individual’s ability to adapt or accommodate to stress and adversity – to bounce back. However, the reality is that we are not solid state entities; we are dynamic beings and are changed by our experiences and the bouncing back must also accommodate that change.
John Dewey, an educational philosopher, proposed the following analogy:
A stone when struck resists. If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, then it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered. While the living thing can easily be crushed by a supreme force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which acted on it into a means of its own further existence.
He goes on to conclude:
It is the very nature of life to strive to continue in being. Since continuance can be secured only by consistent renewal, life is a self-renewing process.
It is a mistake to think of psychological resilience as all-embracing. A person can have greater or lesser resilience in different situations. Resilience depends on resources available to the individual and how they access and use those resources. Again, the resources are both internal and external. Nasreen’s mother had both: the inner strength and courage (internal) and the support of her brother-in-law (external). She then had the capacity to plan her way forward, using language classes that enabled her to find employment. In other words, she accessed other resources as she developed.
Hornby’s characters are much less resilient; they have to learn resilience. They do so by banding together and bouncing off one another and in doing so, learning about themselves. Their learning curve is very jagged but they do develop insights to themselves and start to change even if they are sometimes resistant.
A turning point for Hornby’s characters is when they attempt to rescue someone from committing the act that they had saved each other from. They fail and the man jumps to his death. Their shock forces them to consider what part of each of them allowed themselves to be saved from committing suicide. They realise that they each wanted to escape an aspect of themselves or of their situation; they really did not wish to die. They are striving to continue to be and realise that they are in a process of renewal or personal development which is challenging in itself. They have to learn to accept who they are, change attitudes, recognise their patterns of behaviour and reactions so that they can change their responses to situations that they find themselves in, in spite of the vicissitudes of life.
(All this makes the book sound heavy going, but it is a great read and very funny).
My impression is that Nasreen’s mother lived a fulfilling life but it was not easy. Those refugees who struggle through unimaginable difficulties (read Dave Eggers: What is the What, McSweeney, 2006), once given a chance, no matter how traumatised they are, usually go on to live productive lives that contribute to the health and wealth of the society within which they establish themselves. They, like Nasreen’s mother, like Hornby’s quartet, will reach out to resources offered and build upon their own resources.
This is what these stories teach us: that we have stresses in our lives; some are greater than others; some are more life threatening than others. Combining inner
resources with outer resources helps us to find a way forward. We each must find the courage to pursue them.