Resilience

I have been meaning to write something on this subject for a while, which is resilience – psychological or spiritual, call it what you will. It is our ability to cope with adversity. One thing I admire about the people of my native land is how we got through World War II, all alone until the Americans finally came in and made the liberation of Europe possible. This was the experience of my grandparents and parents, anyone born before the mid 1930’s.

I have had many discussions with French people and the way they lived through the war. France was occupied from 1940 and came under the jackboot and the terror of the Gestapo. Some betrayed their neighbours for a food ration stamp! Resistance was rewarded by torture and a long trip to the concentration camp if you were not lucky enough to get a bullet right away! In England, they were generally in solidarity, led by the tough determination of Churchill and inspired by feelings of patriotism and national pride. The same feeling comes back year after year on Remembrance Day, even for those of us born after the war.

One way the English maintained the stiff upper lip was through humour and mocking the enemy. Litter bins were painted with cartoon pictures of Hitler with a wide-open mouth, so we could make him eat our rubbish! This video is a wonderful piece of testimony of this use of humour to get through those dark days.

But, the reality of war is something other than the patriotic films we had in the 1950’s and 60’s like The Dambusters. It was horror and destruction, pure evil. One has only to ask those who have been to Vietnam, Irak or Afghanistan in recent years. Many servicemen have been destroyed by post-traumatic-stress-syndrome and others have committed suicide. The nightmares never stop. Yet others made it through and rebuilt their lives.

One thing that brought me to this theme was reading something about St Theresa of Lisieux and her spiritual resilience. She had a very tough monastic way of life, and then she became ill with tuberculosis. Those were her physical trials, and there was her spiritual life. Her secret was The Little Way, one of simplicity and humility. Far from the sappy and sentimental image we often have of this Saint, reading her writings and about what others saw in her, she was tough. She wrestled with her faith and her impending death. Her simplicity was in reality down-to-earthness.

We all carry our crosses in one way or another, be it through ill health, war, famine, persecution and all the possibilities St Paul mentioned like being shipwrecked three times. It would appear that resilience is not a quality of some persons, but a process we all have to go through. Another extreme example I have seen in cinema is the famous film Papillon. The hero of the film played by Steve McQueen survives an incredible degree of suffering. His punishment may have been out of proportion with his crime. The French penal colonies of Guyana killed a large proportion of the prisoners. His will to live and escape remained intact. That is resilience!

We humans are generally very clever at finding coping strategies when faced with danger and adversity. I remember a few years ago overtaking a tractor in a van. The tractor suddenly turned left in front of me without indicating his direction. I was pushed into a trajectory towards a ditch in the other side of the road. As this happened, I remember being extremely calm, and only overcome by an adrenaline rush once the vehicle had come to a standstill, still upright and everyone alive and uninjured (two persons in the vehicle). It’s probably what happens to soldiers in battle and why many are totally fearless in the face of the enemy. It is partly their military training, but also basic human instinct. It also happened to me when I once rescued a person who tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Thames in London. You focus on the essential and forget your own fear or sense of self-preservation.

Here is a short quote from Guns of Navarone that has always particularly impressed me:

Cohn: Do you think they’ve got any chance at all, sir?

Commodore Jensen: Frankly, no. Not a chance in the world. I should be very surprised if they get even halfway to Navarone. Just a waste of six good men. However, I suppose that doesn’t matter, considering how many have been wasted already. I’m glad it’s not my decision; I’m only the middleman… Still, they may get there, and they may pull it off. Anything can happen in a war. Slap in the middle of absolute insanity people pull out the most extraordinary resources: ingenuity, courage, self-sacrifice. Pity we can’t meet the problems of peace in the same way, isn’t it? It would be so much cheaper for everybody.

Cohn: I never thought of it in just that way, sir. You’re a philosopher, sir.

Commodore Jensen: No. I’m just the man who has to send people out on jobs like this one.

Jenson described exactly this ability man has for finding a way. Some of the greatest inventions have been inspired by problems to solve, like Wallace’s bouncing bomb which was the only way to destroy the three dams in Germany. Necessity is the mother of invention. Get stuck out on the road with a broken-down car, and we generally find a way to get home. Sometimes, we absolutely need help, and sometimes we do a better repair job that we thought we were able to do. I have found myself out at sea in my boat and my mast down because of a rigging failure. Two possibilities: call for help or cope. I dismantled my rig and got to the beach holding the mast in one hand and the jib sheet and my tiller with the other hand. Once on the beach, a long way from my “home beach”, I was able to re-rig the boat and find something to hold the mast up – and get home. No heroism, just what any one of us in a fix has to do!

Resilience and resourcefulness are also things we learn. Scouting is a wonderful invention for kids. They learn to make things from very little and solve problems like adults. I found the same thing with the CCF and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. I my more recent experience, the Glénans made a big impression on me. The Glénans, founded on an archipelago of islands after the war in south Brittany, was designed to help young people after the trauma of the Occupation. Teach ’em to sail and stick together in a boat! I can’t think of anything better to make men and women of us. It all started with Baden Powell and Rudyard Kipling, men who really understood these human qualities that ennobled us and made us capable of realising our potential.

These human qualities are found in individual persons and whole societies, like England under siege before the Americans arrived. War is not the only adversity man has to face. We have only to look back a few days – and what is still happening – in the Philippines. First there were the wind and the waves of the typhoon, and now the total breakdown of civilisation as people try to survive in spite of the absence of humanitarian help (because helpers can’t get there or don’t have the boats, helicopters and planes). Many curl up and die. Others resort to pillage and crime, and others seek to remain within the bounds of morality and decency.

There is another story someone once told me about the bombing of Dresden. There was a mental hospital full of patients earmarked by the Nazis for euthanasia. When the city was bombed and the patients escaped, their mental illnesses went into remission and they helped other victims of the bombing like completely sane people. The insanity returned as “normality” returned. I don’t know how true this story is, and I have not read Slaughterhouse Five.

Resilience enables us to deal with danger and risk, keep our ability and competence under stress (like making the best of a vehicle out of control), recover from trauma – and take up challenges to deal with future hardship. We need to have a positive view on life, but not an illusory one that disregards reality. We can suffer greatly from traumas, anxiety, illness and obsessive thoughts, but we recover in time and become the stronger for it. It is necessary to be realistic for the future and build up confidence and self-esteem. With these in place, we communicate with others and keep our feelings under control.

As mentioned above, humour is very important in our task of coping. It is often a great help to take the mickey out of ourselves, which is often what elderly people do instead of complain about their failing health and lessened ability to do what they used to do. Again, we have the importance of a positive attitude, ability to solve problems and cope, but to have the humility to call for help when really needed (and not before). Belief and spirituality are essential. We take ourselves less seriously. However, there are aspects of religion that have caused a tremendous amount of harm. The guidance of souls needs to contain a notion of man’s essential goodness, even though we are all capable of evil.

There are various things most of us can do to build up our resilience. The most important is working on our attitude and chasing away alarmist and pessimistic thoughts. Only today, I was reading an article about the human race only having a few months to live before our being exterminated by radiation poisoning. Our planet is horribly polluted, but not to that extent. We need to take on the challenge of doing something about it.

Another thing is to get out and about, take up a sport within our physical possibilities. Above all, doing things like boating; hiking and mountaineering brings us into communion with nature and a sense of wonder. This helps the life of prayer as does the actual practice of prayer and spiritual reading. These things also bring us to see beyond ourselves and reach out to those in a worse predicament to ourselves. I think of the metal patients in the hospital of Dresden and how they became sane in the chaos and when they had other people to help out of the flames and rubble.

Land of our birth, we pledge to thee
Our love and toil in the years to be;
When we are grown and take our place
As men and women with our race.
Father in Heaven who lovest all,
O help thy children when they call.
That they may build from age to age
An undefiled heritage.

Teach us the strength that cannot seek,
By deed, or thought, to hurt the weak;
That, under thee, we may possess
Man’s strength to comfort man’s distress.
Teach us delight in simple things,
The mirth that has no bitter springs;
Forgiveness free of evil done,
And love to all men ‘neath the sun.

Land of our birth, our faith, our pride,
For whose dear sake our fathers died;
O Motherland, we pledge to thee,
Head, heart and hand through the years to be.

Rudyard Kipling

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4 Responses to Resilience

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Father Anthony, When you write, “But, the reality of war is something other than the patriotic films we had in the 1950′s and 60′s like The Dambusters. It was horror and destruction, pure evil. One has only to ask those who have been to Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years”, I think you’re both partially true but also advancing a false sense of pacifism. The horrors of war of the 20th century were the horrors of ideology put into practice. Whether it was colonialism/imperialism/empires in WW I or fascism & communism in WW II, Korea, & Vietnam. The horrors of war in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were mostly tied to religious ideology and the whims of absolute monarchs.

    Even the gray areas are fascinating. Is Spain better off today because Franco’s Nationalists defeated the Left and he kept the monarchy? Imagine a Stalinist Spain in the 1940s. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia makes for interesting reading then and now. We saw the horrible fruits of the Iron Curtain in the 1940s and 1950s.

    Just look at the tens of millions murdered by Mao’s communists while the PRC was ostensible at “peace”. Or Stalin slaughtering the Ukrainians by terror famine in the 1930s. Stalin used his “peaceful” years to kill off his enemies from Trotsky to farmers to artists and more. Hitler’s Final Solution would’ve been far worse, if such is possible, if he’d had a 1,000 year Reich let alone a 100 year one.

    And is war always too terrible? At least when pondering the implications of “peace”? Just compare North and South Korea. Which would you rather live in? A lengthy defensive war eventually saved S. Korea. Could Diem have turned S. Vietnam into a viable republic? And I’d like to think Malaysia is a wee bit better off today for having defeated a Chinese-communist led insurgency. Same for Kenya and the horrors of Mau-Mau. The end of the war in Cambodia became the start of Pol Pot’s genocide. I suspect the average Cambodian didn’t find the peace very comforting?

    It would be interesting to see where some of the greatest resilency in the face of malignant politics has taken place. In the 20th century I’d probably think the “borderland” area of Eastern Europe (Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine) and parts of Asia (China, Vietnam, N. Korea).

    And yes, some wars are utterly senseless. Anyone who studies the causes and conduct of the Chaco War between destitute Paraguay and Bolivia (War: 1932-1935, Peace Negotiations: 1935-1938, Final border demarcation & resolution in 2009) sees what happens when generals are politicians and the rule of guns becomes the rule of law. A terrible waterless desert war. Massive deaths over oil that didn’t exist, a riverway that wouldn’t have become a viable major Atlantic Ocean terminus anyway, and false notions of national pride.

    • Michael Frost says:

      I should say my immediate thoughts on war and peace are likely being influenced by my current read, Norman Davies old classic: White Eagle, Red Star, The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 and ‘The Miracle on the Vistula’ (1972). Poland came so close to becoming the 2nd Soviet nation.

    • You’re right in that I am closer to pacifism and anarchism than nationalism and conservatism. Yet I understand that the only way to defeat Hitler and Communism was by military means. Someone had to make the terrible decision to send the men in, to their deaths, knowing that it was the only way to get the job done. What is worse, war or living under evil?

      World War I was a prime example of the totally pointless war, all caused by the series of alliances between countries, such that a purely local conflict sucked everyone else in. Thus a Balkans incident became a scene of millions of lives lost in the trenches between France and Germany over metres of land. It is not surprising that it was the 14-18 war that made thinking people pacifists.

      Like capital punishment for terrorists, serial killers, child rapist/murderers, etc. it is a terrifying moral decision. What are the alternatives? I can’t argue against you, as you do have a point. Sometimes, war costs less than peace, and someone has to make the decision. That’s why I’m not a politician or anyone in authority – nor would I ever want to be.

      • ed pacht says:

        Some, though perhaps not all of the quandary may result from our previous decision to use war. It may well be that WWII was necessary to stop the horrors of Nazism, but I am convinced that that apparent necessity came to be only because of the fighting of WWI and the shameful treatment of Germany that followed. Would the Bolsheviks have been able to take over Russia if the war had not been going on? Would the horrors of Stalinism have been unleashed? I find that doubtful. Would Nazism have been able to take over Germany if not for the harshness of the Versailles treaty? I can’t see how that could have happened.

        Now, perhaps WWII was indeed necessary, but it seems doubtful if the USSR would have taken control of Eastern Europe without the settlement after that war. Would the Cold War and its offspring in Korea and Vietnam have plagued us as they did? There are a lot of questions to be asked even regarding apparently necessary wars. The side effects need to be considered. They are often even worse than the problem being addressed.

        No, I can’t manage to be a truly consistent pacifist, but I do come close, as I find myself unable to disregard the costs and aftereffects, or to be sure that things are not being made worse.

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