Inspiring resilience, hope and possibilities in African widows, youth and children
Could Resilience Be the Emotional Cure for COVID-19?
Growing up in Lusenda, a village in the South-Kivu Province in the Eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, cholera and malaria were common illnesses. My parents told me: “It is a miracle you are still with us. Many children succumbed to cholera and malaria when you were born. We never thought you would make it to your first birthday.” As a child, I was happily nurtured by both my family and neighbours (who, in my culture, are viewed as a communal-family). I thrived in my communal village for fifteen years. And then came 1996. War broke out in my homeland DR Congo and as a 15-year-old boy, I witnessed the merciless torture and killing of friends, family members and other innocent people.
As chronicled in my memoir Still With Us: Msenwa’s Untold Story of War, Resilience and Hope, becoming a father to myself and two young sisters during the war was I thought the most painful experience of my life. Everything inside me was screaming that I wasn’t ready to look after my two younger sisters; and for that matter, I don’t even think I was ready to look after myself. But I had to face the harsh reality that my parents were no longer with us, and so, I had no choice other than to learn how to be the adult, the parent for my sisters. It was such a confusing and conflicted time because half of me was saying ‘I can’t do this’, and the other half was saying ‘I must do this!’ Looking ahead, I knew that if I chose to simply lie down and die, it would mean my two sisters would invariably die alongside me.
Little did I know that I would live to face something called COVID-19. As I look back, I am thankful for the opportunities that my struggles during the war in DR Congo and the unbearable living conditions in Nyarugusu Refugee Camp taught me. What does all this have to do with COVID-19? I am hoping to share with you four principles of resilience that I have learned and continue to learn and utilize when facing difficult times.
Life is “Dukkha” – which translates as life is suffering. This Buddhist concept is shared by many religions and indigenous communities across the globe. Resilience has been defined by many as the ability to bounce back when we fall down individually or collectively. More importantly, resilience is one’s ability to ensure positive outcomes and competence in the face of stress. It focuses on Resilience helps us stop wondering ‘why me?’ and instead focuses on using current challenges as opportunities for growth to make future hardships more manageable.
As we face this unprecedented moment and make history for future generations, I strongly believe that these 4 components of resilience can help us to face COVID-19 daily with confidence:
Human beings are made to connect. It is crucial for us to identify our role models and ensure that we surround ourselves with resilient people. In the context of COVID-19, face-to-face social connection presents its own challenges and it is crucial that we listen to what the experts are telling us about social distancing. At the same time, it is important to reach out and support others via technology and other means. As we all know, doing something for another person brings us joy and a sense of purpose. As we connect with others in positive ways, we can become more resilient and determined to pursue our bigger purposes in life. As my grandpa would say, “Pulling away from others to prevent pain does not work: estranging oneself from others creates even more pain and suffering.” What can you offer your family, a friend or a stranger?
My Grandpa Msenwa told me, “Bad things happen to good people, but what matters most is how you choose to respond.” William James noted that “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.” History has proven to us that a positive attitude in the midst of turmoil or a traumatic event not only enables us to live every day with confidence, but helps us realize that problems are never permanent. We need to contain the negative thoughts by shifting our attention to the multitude of opportunities for growth that suffering - or in this case COVID-19 - presents for us. As a war survivor, I learned to focus on what I could change and somehow accept the things I couldn’t. By doing so, I did not diminish the negative things but I purposefully chose positivity. Most importantly, I am daily searching for things to be grateful for even in the midst of this pandemic. For example, living in Canada, I have the blessing of having access to food, health care, and many more necessities of life. I would suggest that as a family or individually you take a few minutes to make a list of things you are grateful for. You will be surprised at what you come up with.
As my grandfather would say “Only those with strong values can survive a fight.” As a child, I did not understand what he meant; however, when the war broke out in 1996, I realized that my values both guided my survival actions and helped me throughout those extremely difficult times. In those moments, I prayed to God as if everything depended on Him; and I ran, hiding myself from the bullets as if everything depended on me. As we face COVID-19, I think we need to remember that we are unique and have a purpose to live for. We need to consciously pursue what matters most to us individually and collectively as a nation and world. Being resilient in the face of COVID-19 means that we adjust our expectations of life yet still find a way to live out our values.
COVID-19 has brought a wide range of emotional disruptions to our ways of living. We may feel angry, fearful, sad or a sense of being wronged by this pandemic. Resilience requires us to be kind to ourselves and accept such feelings as a natural response to events of this magnitude without fighting or wanting to change them. I think, however, that we need to move beyond accepting the emotional toll of COVID-19. Resilience compels us to seek opportunities for personal growth when everything around us tell us to give up. In this way, we can bring meaning and purpose out of COVID-19. Lately, I have been asking myself: Is what I am doing helping or harming me? Do I need to watch every piece of media coverage, or can I use that time to care for myself or others?
Jokes were a big part of my life growing up in the Bembe culture, but I didn’t appreciate the true value of them until the war came. Although it might sound crazy or unnatural to be silly during this time, we have a choice: we can either succumb to fear of this pandemic or boldly and humorously face our fears. As W.H. Auden says, “We are here on earth to help others, what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.” Establish routines that enlighten your day with fun and humour: it’s a powerful tool to defeat negative emotions.
As I look back on my struggles during the war and life as a refugee in dehumanizing conditions, I have learned that suffering is part of the human race, however it does not have to be wasted. As a Christian, I believe that we are here on earth for a limited time and that our forever home is in heaven. But regardless of your faith, I think we can all agree that suffering comes to all of us.
Amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19, resilience enables us to make a conscious decision to promote love and compassion over selfishness and fear. By doing this, we will thrive and become the history makers that generations to come will say: “How did they survive such a thing?” And I hope they will say: “Because they loved God and one another, and sought mercy and justice in all their doings” (Micah 6:8)
Msenwa Oliver Mweneake, MA, MSW, RSW is a Canadian of Congolese origin. A registered social worker in Ontario, author of his memoir Still With Us and the founder of The Msenwa Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to inspire resilience, hope and possibilities in children, youth and widows/vulnerable women in DR Congo through educational sponsorship and empowerment programs and other social supports (www.msenwafoundation.com). He delivers inspirational and motivational keynote addresses and workshops. Oliver speaks to universities, churches, corporate and non-profit organizations around the world.