His left arm was left useless by the polio that ravaged his body as a boy. As a ten-year-old he tended the family’s goat herd while supporting himself on a stick he’d fashioned into a crutch. He remembered his father, six days after his wedding and with a newly pregnant wife, had been forcibly dragged from his home to fight in battles that eventually killed everyone and left his father mentally incapable of living anything like a normal life. His mother, who had been the only person in her village to survive an enemy massacre, had not smiled in years; believing that if she smiled, someone would get hurt. Now in his mid-20s, this goatherd from South Sudan had found his way to a United Nations refugee camp where he was enrolled, along with nearly a dozen other refugees, in my online ethics class and was quite determined to get his bachelor’s degree. His ultimate goal? He wanted to help bring peace to his country so that others wouldn’t have to suffer as he did.
Closer to home, sitting outside the campus bookstore, my former colleague had visibly aged since the last time I had seen him. Other former friends and faculty walked around in a daze. Several stopped by my table in the cafeteria to express their shock and grief after having suddenly been informed that the university was broke and shutting its doors after nearly 125 years. Employees and faculty alike were shaken by the prospect that decades of steady employment would abruptly end in just a few months’ time. The very air seemed laced with a sense of impending doom.
When I was barely five years old, we lived in a small village in France about two hours’ drive northeast of Paris. My father, a U.S. Air Force aircraft hydraulics mechanic, did his part to keep strategic bombers ready to launch at a moment’s notice. It was the Cold War. Less than a decade previously, our rented chateau had been occupied by Nazi officers and used as a rest-and-recuperation camp. Our landlord, an expatriate Dutch baron, had spent the years since the war recovering everything that had been looted from the chateau. Nearby, the GI’s had taken to doing service projects for a girl’s orphanage: building and painting swing sets, benches, and desks. I have a photo of Dad sitting on the crossbar of a swing set laughing as he realized the guy behind him had just painted the crossbar he was sitting on. The GI wives, including my Mom, had sewn dresses, made ribbons, and bought a pair of shoes for every girl in the orphanage. My job was to blow up balloons. I’ve got the photo to prove it. Santa Noel – a GI in a beard and Santa suit – passed out gifts and sweets to squealing and giggling girls. At the end, the nuns herded the girls into line where they sweetly sang out their gratitude.
How is it that some people emerge from the most horrific circumstances with a cheerful resolve to refuse to let their difficulties define them while others succumb to shock and grief; throwing in the towel to wallow in self-pity, immobilized by fear?
How is it that some people emerge from the most horrific circumstances with a cheerful resolve to refuse to let their difficulties define them while others succumb to shock and grief; throwing in the towel to wallow in self-pity, immobilized by fear? In this next series of blog posts, I will be exploring resilience – the art of bouncing back after adversity. I begin by asking, how do people deal with difficult events that change their lives? War and genocide, loss of family, loss of a job, serious illness, terrorist attacks and other traumatic events: these are all examples of very challenging life experiences. Many people react to such circumstances with a flood of strong emotions and a sense of dread and uncertainty. Some fall into a downward spiral of emotional despair, drug and alcohol abuse, spousal abuse. Yet most people generally adapt well over time to life-changing situations and stressful conditions. What enables them to do so? I’ll be drawing from my own research as well as the research of other resilience experts. My aim is to help you develop and use personal strategies for enhancing resilience. Confucius is credited with saying, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Join me, won’t you?