In December 1914, Thomas Edison’s laboratory went up in flames. At the height of the fire that destroyed much of his life’s work, the 67-year old scientist calmly watched the scene, his face glowing in the reflection, his white hair blowing in the wind. He asked his wife to join him in viewing the spectacle, saying that she would never again see anything like it.
The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and declared, “There is a great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God, we can start anew.”
Three weeks after the fire, Edison gave the world the first phonograph.
Stories of Resilience
What do people like Thomas Edison, Anne Frank, Cinderella and scavenger children of Payatas have in common? They all possess this remarkable trait called resiliency. The Jewish girl Anne Frank is well-known for her famous diary. During the Second World War, she and her family hid from the lethal persecution of the Germans in a secret annex to an office building. Despite wartime deprivations, confinement under extreme conditions to a small space with no escape for over two years, 12-year old Anne was able to develop remarkably well, as is documented in her diary.
If Thomas Edison and Anne Frank’s story are not too familiar, then let us turn to the classic tale of Cinderella. Her story is possibly the perfect illustration of resilience. After being subjected to the worst forms of humiliation at the hands of her wicked stepmother and step sisters, Cinderella nevertheless retains her inner qualities of goodness and righteousness, which eventually receive their just recognition and reward as she moves into a situation befitting her true worth.
But we need not look very far for stories of resilience. The scavenger children of Payatas glaringly depict resilience against all odds. They earn a living by sifting through heaps of garbage to unearth recyclable materials. I’ve done research with these children and was amazed to find that despite having to toil under the most demeaning and unsanitary conditions, these children still possess that admirable sense of hope that through persevering hard work and sariling sikap (self-persistence) they will be able to finish their schooling and obtain a better life.
Elastic. Flexible. Pliable. These are the usual synonyms of the word resilient. When I think of resiliency, I picture a rubber ball. No matter how hard you throw it against a wall, it doesn’t smash into pieces but bounces back, unleashing its inner energy.
When it comes to human beings, on the other hand, developmental psychologists have defined resilience as “the capacity to do well in spite of some form of stress or adversity which carries a high risk of negative outcome” or “the capacity to resist destruction in difficult situations, protection of one’s integrity under pressure, and the capacity to construct a positive life in spite of difficult circumstances.” Isn’t this the story of our land? Filipinos have been regarded as a resilient people. We have survived the worst of politics and politicians, and despite all the problems that besiege us, we grow ever more mature and hopeful for positive change.
But what makes a person resilient when faced with adversities such as failure, poverty, humiliation, loss and tragedy? Psychologists have found that among the factors that contribute to an individual’s resiliency are the following:
Social support networks and at the heart of them unconditional acceptance. Edison had his wife to stand by him through thick and thin; Cinderella had her fairy godmother to call on for help (not to mention her mice friends!); Anne Frank had her diary to confide in; and the scavenger children of Payatas had their family and community to provide them with unconditional acceptance.
Self-esteem and the feeling of having some control over what happens in life. A resilient individual is able to maintain a positive outlook on life, knowing that he or she has the wherewithal to transcend difficulties and to control his or her life or the environment in positive ways.
Humor. By this we do not mean an escapist tendency to drown one’s problems with superficial but fleeting palliatives without ever really dealing with the pain. The humor we refer to is characterized by a tenderness towards imperfection, a mature acceptance of failure, a sense of confidence even when things go wrong, and an ability to remain creative or cheerful while embracing life’s many contradictions.
Capacity to discover meaning in life. This is related to spiritual life and religion. While we may not be the type to maintain a diary, or have a spouse, fairy godmother, family and friends to provide us with unconditional love, the good news remains that we are never alone. Our faith assures us that we can fling ourselves to the powerful arms of our Creator who said, “I will be with you until the end of time” and “I will never forsake you.” We only have to trustingly abandon ourselves and put our lives in His hand.
Grace, its healing power
Resiliency is a concept as old as mankind. Adam and Eve were broken after their fall. But they picked themselves up and began again. Not without the grace of God, of course. Our first parents may have lost the earthly paradise of Eden, but by corresponding to God’s grace they found their way back, this time to a heavenly paradise, their destined home.
For me, the resilience factor of all resilience factors is still the grace of God, a lifeline He continually sends at every moment. We only have to open our hearts to receive it. For in our brokenness it is grace that makes us spring back. It is grace that makes us bounce!
The author, Juzzara Simbulan, obtained her M.A. Psychology from the University of the Philippines. Her master’s thesis on the resilience of scavenger children is entitled “The Dumpsite is their Playground: A Study of the Self-Concept, View of Work, Problems and Coping Strategies of Child Scavengers”. For further reading, view the thesis abstract at: http://web.kssp.upd.edu.ph/abstracts/psych_simbulan.html