“I know a young person who needs this,” whispered the woman sitting next to me at a fundraising event for a social services agency. She was talking about a small polished rock, on which the word “Courage” was engraved. There was one at every place setting: a little reminder for each guest to take home.
“You know, I do too,” I said. I slipped my rock into my purse, thinking of a young adult I know who is addicted to heroin. He doesn’t want to be. Who wants to live life enslaved to a drug? I’ve lost count of how many times he’s detoxed and rehabbed. Each relapse takes another chunk out of his store of hope. I pray daily that he won’t run out altogether. But this has been going on for a while now, and so where I find a shred of optimism is in a paradoxical thought: maybe, I tell myself, though he drew the bad card of addiction, he was also endowed with an inner core of resilience. There’s something in him that makes him strong enough to keep trying.
Why is it that some humans are resilient and others are not? I’m reading Nicole Krauss’ poignant novel The History of Love right now and marveling at the resilience of the main character, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor named Leo Gursky. Somehow, Leo transcended the temptation to give up, or to define himself through hate, even though his family had been wiped out by the irrational hatred of the Nazis. Leo grew up on a scrap of the map claimed, at various times, by Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Soviet Union. As a young man without family or friends, he started over in the United States, just like millions of immigrants before and since. For him, statelessness was a clean slate.
For others, it is lighter fluid just waiting for a match to flame it up into resentment, anger, vengefulness. Ireland, Israel, Iraq come to mind. The statelessness of ethnic Chechens may have played a part in the Boston Marathon bombs.
But why? Why do the hardships of war, repression, migration breed resilience in some and hatred in others?
The fundraiser I attended featured speakers who had survived horrific domestic violence and found the courage to get help and begin life anew. Two were women who had been severely injured by their abusers. One speaker was a man whose marriage ended after he threatened his wife. He sought help, and finally—in the middle of his life—learned how to behave nonviolently. How to build resilience through peace and compassion instead of abuse and control. It was an act of willful self-reprogramming not unlike what a drug addict must do in order to end his addiction. It took courage, just as it took courage for the other two speakers to save themselves and their children and start a new life.
Courage comes from the Latin word for heart. It’s about rock-like, inner strength. To be resilient, on the other hand, is to be elastic. It comes from a Latin root meaning to “jump back.” To bounce, not break. To weather change. To blossom after a drought, a hurricane, a hailstorm. Naturalist Ann Haymond Zwinger writes that “flowering is, after all, not an aesthetic contribution but a survival mechanism.” This was clear to me as I listened to the survivors of domestic violence, whose joyful blooming was so visible. Such a testament to what is possible when resilience meets courage. Which really is such a good word to put on a rock.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.