Resilience

It is quite possible to misunderstand this otherwise useful long essay that appeared in ‘Wall Street Journal’ on Saturday (Nov. 11). It is about resilience. Celebrities and successful people – now and before – have invariably had difficult childhoods – broken homes, alcoholic and abusive parents, sexual abuse, bullying in school, etc.

Before we even begin to analyse the article, we have to state upfront that the study seems confined to the American cultural or family setting. Would the results be different in other societies? Possibly.

When one reads the article carefully, one realises that hardship is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for success or distinction later in life. Read this carefully:

Two-thirds of these high-risk children went on to have difficulties of their own, such as delinquency, unplanned pregnancies and underemployment. One-third, however, fared well. At school and at work, they did as well as, or better than, their low-risk peers from more affluent, stable homes. [Link]

Notice that two-thirds went on to have difficulties of their own. Therefore, some might be tempted to conclude that it is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition. If it is a necessary condition, then those who have comfortable lives as children should not be succeeding big. The evidence for that is mixed:

The Goertzels found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes, with another 10% in a mixed setting.

More interestingly, the one-third (see the earlier quoted text) who went on to be successful provided caring homes for their children:

In adulthood, they found supportive partners and built loving families that, often, differed greatly from the ones they grew up with.

The real issue is not whether one provides a rough or tough environment for their children to shine later in their lives. No one is going to wantonly deny their children comfort and affection, if they have a choice of providing them.

The question is whether and how one prepares them to face tough situations as and when they arise. Do we pamper, spoil them or readily provide support and not let them grow up on their own even as we stand ready to lend a helping hand when it becomes absolutely essential?

For example, when they have difficulties with their studies, do we abuse the school and teachers and bully them or encourage the children to work harder, to ask questions, to look inward and find out where they are going wrong and show them how to emerge out of it?

Some of the passages in the article reminds one of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s inner search for meaning’:

Dr. Ehlers found that the extent to which prisoners had fought back in their own minds made a bigger difference than the severity of the abuse they had suffered. Those who felt mentally defeated—who felt like they were “nothing” or who quit caring what became of them—were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD later. By contrast, prisoners who had resisted from within—even if they appeared to have given up on the outside, by complying with guards or signing false confessions—fared better down the line.

So, how to enhance or cultivate resilience in children who grow up in comfortable setting? I found it hard to believe that the article does not mention the importance and usefulness of emotional security and affection that parents provide. Aren’t they supposed to be helpful for children to cope?

In fact, very successful people are usually rare. That is true by definition. So, children growing up in difficult environment can turn out to be somewhat extreme – either too successful or too badly.

Most of us will settle for our children to turn out to be moderately accomplished, emotionally stable adults who are also useful members and pillars of their community, if possible.

What do we need to do for them to tick these relatively modest goals? The article is a bit thin on that, in my view. Nonetheless, it is not empty. It offers some suggestions:

Take on long-form projects that feel like challenges rather than threats.

When life inevitably becomes difficult, own the fighter within. Resist defeat in your own mind.

Reach out to family, friends or professionals who care. … Seeking support is what resilient people do.

Engage in active coping…. Make a realistic plan to improve your situation, and work toward it day by day. Progress shores us up and calms us down.

Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong.  (In other words, remember your stories of successful coping and resilience).

In sum, a useful article but if not carefully read, it can be misleading and lead to incorrect inferences too. Apologies if the article is behind a paywall. I read it because I saw a link to it in the Twitter handle of Jason Zweig.

Sagely advice

These are verbatim extracts from the article, ‘Finale’ written by James Taranto who compiled the ‘Best of the web’ for the Wall Street Journal for nine years.

In our own postelection conversations with Trump supporters, the predominant emotions we’ve detected have been joy and hope. It reminds us very much of the prevailing mood in the mainstream media around this time eight years ago.

No doubt before the election a lot of Trump supporters were angry about the incumbent and the status quo more generally. But the same was true of Obama supporters in 2008.

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Territorial animals fiercely defend their turf: “When a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest–usually within a matter of seconds,” observes biologist John Alcock in “Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach.” We’d say the same instinct is at work when the great apes who call themselves Homo sapiens defend their authority. When it is challenged, they can become vicious, prone to risky and unscrupulous behavior.

That, it seems to us, is the central story of our time. The left-liberal elite that attained cultural dominance between the 1960s and the 1980s—and that since 2008 has seen itself as being on the cusp of political dominance as well—is undergoing a crisis of authority, and its defenses are increasingly ferocious and unprincipled. Journalists lie or ignore important but politically uncongenial stories. Scientists suppress alternative hypotheses. Political organizations bully apolitical charities. The Internal Revenue Service persecutes dissenters. And campus censorship goes on still.

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We argued in November that Trump’s election was “probably a necessary corrective” to left-liberal authoritarianism—a point PJMedia’s Roger Kimball echoes in a recent column:

Among the many things that changed during the early hours of November 9 was a cultural dispensation that had been with us since at least the 1960s, the smug, “progressive” (don’t call it “liberal”) dispensation that had insinuated itself like a toxic fog throughout our cultural institutions—our media, our universities, our think tanks and beyond. So well established was this set of cultural assumptions, cultural presumptions, that it seemed to many like the state of nature: just there as is a mountain or an expanse of ocean. But it turns out it was just a human, all-too-human fabrication whose tawdriness is now as obvious as its fragility.

What we are witnessing is its dissolution. It won’t happen all at once and there are bound to be pockets of resistance. But they will become ever more irrelevant even if they become ever shriller and more histrionic. The anti-Trump establishment is correct that what is taking place is a sea change in our country. But they are wrong about its purport. It is rendering them utterly irrelevant even as it is boosting the confidence, strength, and competence of the country as a whole. Glad tidings indeed.

That may prove overly optimistic. On the other hand, do you see what we mean about joy and hope?

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Our advice to journalists who wish to improve the quality of their trade would be to lose their self-importance, overcome the temptation to pose as (or bow to) authority figures, and focus on the basic function of journalism, which is to tell stories. Journalists are not arbiters of truth; we are, unlike fiction writers (or for that matter politicians), constrainedby the truth. But fiction writers bear the heavier burden of making their stories believable.

When you think about journalism in this way, its failure in 2016 becomes very simple to understand. Whether you see Trump as a hero or a goat—or something in between, which is our still-tentative view—his unlikely ascension to the presidency was a hell of a story. Most journalists missed the story because they were too caught up in defending a system of cultural authority of which they had foolishly allowed themselves to become an integral part.