Of Super Humans and the Ordinary: Stories of Resilience
After talking about toxic mothers in his last column, psychotherapist Omar Tauseef pays tribute to those everyday heroes who chose to break the cycle of abuse and pain and sought help to heal themselves, sometimes entering ‘post traumatic growth’ but always choosing to live with grace, despite their suffering.
What’s the first image that pops in your head when you think of ‘resilience’? Please do pause for a moment. Close your eyes and let that image emerge of someone who you’d consider to be a resilient individual.
Who did you picture? What happened to this person? And what did they do in the face of this?
I’m assuming you pictured an individual who faced adversity, unsafety, trauma, violence, tragedy, threats, discrimination, grief, loss or other significant distressful experiences. And their story didn’t stop with those experiences. They bounced back and re-authored not only their own life story, but benefited others in the process. How many of you pictured yourself as this super human?
“There are warm mothers who never had a warm mother themselves, and gentle fathers who bore the brunt of their own father’s violence”
When I think of a resilient person, who surfaces for me is Sean Stephenson, ‘the three-foot giant’. Born with the brittle bone disease, Dr. Stephenson was predicted not to survive at birth. His disease stunted his growth and caused his bones to fracture over 200 times by the age of 18. Despite his painful challenges, he lived a full life till 40 years and inspired millions of people around the world.
“There are children who lived through the longings of their lonely hearts wishing someone cared for them, but grew up to create love”
Stories like his, or that of Victor Frankl, Rosa Parks, Stephen Hawking, Malala Yousafzai, Oprah Winfrey, or the superhuman figure you pictured inspire awe, gratitude, hope and meaningfulness. They have reached us through their achievements, their talks, books, quotes, and media coverage. These extraordinary individuals have scaled mountains, swam the seas, written fearlessly, fought injustice and produced music and science, despite their paraplegia, absence of limbs or arms, muscular dystrophy, the impact of violence etc. Their lives show us a mirror, to measure ourselves up against, and question who we could become if we wished to.
“The ordinary super humans I’m talking about didn’t get there in a day, or a year. This was their life’s work”
The stories of these super humans are told, but millions of others remain untold. Some of those ordinary super humans are experienced by therapists every day. These men and women are ordinary and unnamed but what they recover from is no less extraordinary. They have grown back after the root is cut and the fruit taken away; they have grown from underneath concrete and didn’t perish in the dark. I want to honour some of those stories to let the world hear them, as well as to inspire you that if you wish, you may write yours very differently.
“Some of these ordinary super humans are experienced by therapists every day. These men and women are ordinary and unnamed but what they recover from is no less extraordinary”
Resilience also looks like a man or a woman ending an inter-generational cycle of violence, hate and abuse. This happens when gentle-souled men stand up for their wives and shield them from their parent’s excesses. These men also emancipate their daughters from cruel in-laws without caring for society’s harsh judgment. This also happens when women say ‘never again’ and afford the safety, dignity and freedom to their daughter which they never had themselves. Or disentangle themselves from toxic relationships without any support from the system, and go on to raise healthy, empathic and successful children despite social warnings of destroying their family.
“Resilience also looks like a man or a woman ending an inter-generational cycle of violence, hate and abuse. This happens when gentle-souled men stand up for their wives and shield them from their parent’s excesses”
Resilient are survivors of torture, rape, assault, battering, incest, terrorism and fatal illnesses. Some of them heal from the wounds, and live with what we call “post traumatic growth”. This is a feeling akin to how you’d experience running downhill after you’ve been laboring uphill. Others carry with them scars yet live life with grace, serving their families, institutions and their craft. And some don’t cope with what happened to them and their pain gets the better of them, and they create chaos, misery, addictions, violence, and pass on the buck to their children. But then some of them wake up, face their pain and heal themselves and others.
Resilient are survivors of torture, rape, assault, battering, incest, terrorism and fatal illnesses. Some of them heal from the wounds, and live with what we call “post traumatic growth”
There are warm mothers who never had a warm mother themselves, and gentle fathers who bore the brunt of their own father’s violence. And these individuals chose to make different choices than those they learnt. There are children who lived through the longings of their lonely hearts wishing someone cared for them, but grew up to create love, music, education, poetry and products which now bring people together.
There are those whose intellectual, financial, spiritual, sexual, romantic, and emotional freedoms were taken away from them, their identity cut to suit the family, society and the mores, but they started all over again, thirty years too late, but found the courage to do so. Mothers and fathers who lost their children and lost all hope, but then got up to march on for causes so that no other parent would lose their child.
Resilience is also finding love after losing it. It is giving up the exhilaration of powerful substances and settling for a milder rhythm of life. It is feeling rejected repeatedly but still trying. Resilience is being stabbed in the back, but trusting again. It is being the only surviving member of one’s family and getting through life one day at a time. It is seeing things that no human being should see, but finding the courage to live and love without subjecting anyone to the pain they endured.
“Resilience is also finding love after losing it. It is giving up the exhilaration of powerful substances and settling for a milder rhythm of life”
Very few people imagine themselves to be the hero of their own life story. The ordinary super humans I’m talking about didn’t get there in a day, or a year. This was their life’s work, and the one they take pride in. I know they were able to do this by being honest to themselves and growing in self-awareness even if that seemed like a path of thorns to walk through.
“They failed, but tried; cried but accepted; sought help, but discovered that sometimes it’s okay to not be helped by anything or anyone”
They failed, but tried; cried but accepted; sought help, but discovered that sometimes it’s okay to not be helped by anything or anyone. They all looked after themselves, got help when they needed it, learnt from their mistakes and committed themselves to their goals. And sometimes all of this fell down like a house of cards, and we started all over again. And for some we hit tragic endings, where there was no silver lining, no justice, and no escape. And these super humans faced their mortality, their pain, their loss and still lived with dignity.
“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private.
Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily?
The young woman speaks, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.”
She nods and is silent.
But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “It is kind of cute.” “
All at once I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god.
Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.
I remember that the gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in…”
(From Richard Selzer’s Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery.)