An Injection of Resilience

I spent last Sunday at the Eleanor Roosevelt home, Val Kill, in Hyde Park, New York. Every year an award is given to several women and men whose work and lives echo Mrs. Roosevelt’s values and legacy. This year one of the recipients was a beloved friend of mine, Loung Ung. Loung is best known for her trilogy of memoirs that recount her childhood in Cambodia during the reign of the infamous Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Two years ago Loung and Angelina Jolie turned the first of Loung’s memoirs—First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers—into an award-winning film. The film, and Loung’s beautiful books (they are so worth reading) recount the murder of her parents and siblings along with 2 million other Cambodians, and how she was forced, at seven years old, to become a child soldier. The books also tell the tale of courage—the courage to survive, to rebuild a life, and mostly, the courage to choose hope over despair, and love over revenge. Loung went on to become a renowned activist who travels the world working for human rights. You might think Loung Ung would be a dour person, with her history and resume, but she’s one of the most exuberant, fun-loving people I know. She worked hard to heal from the wounds of war—she had to reclaim her capacity for forgiveness, trust, love and joy. Being around her and the other winners of the Eleanor Roosevelt award yesterday reminded me that I don’t want to descend into despair about our country and our world. It’s not hard to go there, what with the 24-7 news cycle that fills my heart with sadness about the breakdown of democracy, about racism and sexism and all the other isms, about climate change, about over-population and the diminishing wilderness, and, and, and. But even though I cannot turn away from the state of our country and the world, I do not want to focus only on the negative. It’s bad for me! Its bad for all of us. I think its important to add hope and perspective into the conversations we have every day. If we give in to despair and fear, I don’t know if we’ll survive these times. We certainly won’t thrive. Its been shown in brain experiments that the whole body is affected by a fear-based, gloomy, negative outlook. You can find all sorts of scholarly articles that show how feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can upset the body's hormone balance, deplete the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damage the immune system. I feel that the immune system of our country is getting damaged now by fear and vitriol and despair. Most certainly we must work politically and systemically on the real problems, but at the same time, we can spread stories of hope, historical perspective of times as bad and worse than ours, and humankinds' irrepressible spirit of innovation and resilience. Injecting hope and telling stories about people doing excitingly different things in the world is a way of awakening that spirit in others. That’s why the crowd in the tent at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home at Val Kill yesterday leapt to their feet after Loung Ung told her story of love over hate, and determination over despair. She gave us all an injection of resilience. So maybe today when a conversation goes into the negative zone, you can share something good you saw happen, something noble and wholesome you helped to create or hope to create. Maybe you can counter the repetitive stories of us vs. them, with love stories, or actions stories--perhaps a rallying cry to get out the vote on November 6. Anything that interrupts the stories of small mindedness and fear.