‘How do I become more resilient?’ asked a young man, his eyes too old for a nineteen year old.
He was born in the Kashmir Valley in an era of violence. Not much has changed in his life time—a period pitted with brute force.
He is not the first to ask this question. If I had kept count of the number of times it has been asked, it would give a percentage, a human quantity brought low by circumstances that most of us are afraid to even imagine.
This young man was asking for resilience in the face a particular kind of loss.
His father and brother had died on the same day, three months before he asked the question.
During a demonstration in the centre of Srinagar, the capital of the Kashmir valley, the young man’s brother had been hit by pellets fired into the crowd of protesters by the counterinsurgency forces. Pellet guns are used regularly in the face of protests in Kashmir. It is a form of ‘non-lethal weapon’ control that has killed many civilians in the valley in the past year, and wounded thousands. In spite of extensive civil protest the weapon continues to be used.
After being hit, the young man’s brother was carried to the nearest hospital on a fruit pallet. When the family reached the hospital the wounded boy was still lying on the pallet in a corridor, but his parents and brother could not get to him through the crowd.
His mother began to wail. As his father reached out to take her arm he crumpled silently to the floor amidst the noise around.
He died an hour later as the result of a cardiac arrest—an attack on the heart His son was one of four who ‘succumbed to their injuries’, as their deaths were described in media coverage of the protest.
In total seventy-four people were injured, four fatally so. This was why the hospital was jammed with panicking families, in a place where most nursing care is provided by the family members of the patient.
The young man’s father and brother were declared dead within two hours of each other.
Of course he longed for resilience. It was the only thing that he believed would give him the strength to support his mother and sister in their paralysing grief. At nineteen he had become the man of the family, though without a job or any obvious way of supporting his mother and sister.
‘You are already resilient,’ was the reply to his question.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘You are here.’
That makes it too neat an exchange, veering dangerously close to being one of those pithy exchanges steeped in hidden meaning. It was not one of those ‘You are here, therefore you are,’ moments, more likely to be written in the swirling sand of a Zen garden in the silent section of a quietly expensive retreat centre than in a place where pellet guns are used to break up demonstrations.
The conversation went on for much longer than those three lines—an hour a week for over six months. During that time the young man was one half of an extended conversation, each week just a comma between one part of the conversation and the next. As he talked, and as he heard himself speak, he began to unravel the stories that he had always told about himself about who he was. He looked again at the times when he felt he had failed, moments such as losing in a puppy brawl with a neighbour in the street about a broken cricket bat; not getting the marks he had hoped for in tests; or failing to get the jobs he had applied for. As each of those times was examined again we picked out what it was that had enabled him to keep going: to get up and walk away from the brawl; what it was that had convinced him to go on studying even though he felt so flattened by various tests results; how he had made himself apply for jobs even as he was being turned down at each interview.
Across the hours of conversation, the deaths of his father and brother would take over again. Each time his reaction was different. Sometimes he was lost in the grief, his head held silently between his hands, unable to speak. At other times spitting rage ricocheted around the room. There were days when he just felt numb and others when he described the agony of the helplessness that he felt. Through all of these times we kept coming back to resilience—that growing strength that had picked him up after the childhood puppy fight, the gritty muscle that had helped him to study again when he felt he was failing, the bold hope that made him apply for more jobs after each rejection.
And then there was a day when he stood up and laughed.
‘You’re right! I am resilient.’
It is not a magic ending. There is no TED talk standing ovation moment. Nor is it another flourish in the sand of the Zen garden. It was a young man realising that indeed there was no magic, but that if there was any at all, it was within him. The resilience he yearned for had been there all along, building each time he just kept on going, every time he showed up and carried on.