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Stories of Human Resilience

| Updated: August 27, 2021 5:16 pm

A human is because a human is resilient. Resilience is everything. It is the core of what makes us humans.  There is a fine example of human resilience in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago, the protagonist, is an old man. His age has not been defined but the lines on his face are as old as the sea. From the novel, we gather that he’s in his late seventies or early eighties. He has been without fish for eight four days at sea.

The old man needs to earn every day but there’s no fish. He has been one of the greatest fishermen in his prime. Now, in the backdrop, at the local café, young ones make fun of him. How humiliating this must be for him? There are times the old man goes hungry but does not even admit it to Manolin, the young boy. He tells the young boy, a kind of shishya, that “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Once, the young boy tells the old man that he could borrow some money from anyone as so many people respected him. To which, Santiago replies, “First you borrow, then you beg” and does not borrow money. Towards the end of the novel, when Santiago has lost everything, he is again dreaming of the legendary conquests of his youth. The power of aphorisms, the strength of human resilience, the enduring self-respect a person are embedded in this novel. Perhaps, that is why The Old Man and the Sea was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1953 culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature the next year.

On a different but a related note, I would also like to talk about Janine Shepherd. Stories that emerge from human pain are often the strongest of them all.  Janine Shepherd was training for the Olympics as a cross-country skier for her country, Australia, when a truck hit her badly.  The accident was so bad that she lay in the spinal ward for a long time.

She became a partial paraplegic for life. Forget running, her body lay in tatters. She has talked about her story in her first book, Never Tell Me Never. I gifted her book to a student of mine who suffered deep depressive episodes due to severe liver malfunction. Janine Shepherd has spoken in detail about her experience in her TED talk, A Broken Body Isn’t a Broken Person. She talks about the time in the spinal ward where everyone lay paralyzed., sharing the ward with five other people. No one could see how others looked like.

How amazing is that? How often in life do you get to make friendships, judgment-free, purely based on spirit?

— Janine Shepherd

“And then I thought to myself, maybe being at rock bottom is actually the perfect place to start”.

— Janine Shepherd

Shepherd  talks about the nurse, Jonathan who came in with lots of plastic straws, asking every patient to join a straw together and how, by joining those straws, they were all united as one people. Shepherd couldn’t walk, so, she decided to fly. She taught herself flying with an instructor and then became certified as a trained flying instructor, within eighteen months after she left the spinal ward. Listen to her TED Talk here:

These are stories of human resilience, of trauma and of rising all over again. Resilience is also sometimes, coming to terms with the intense trauma of the past. That, too, is resilience.

Chilean filmmaker, Patrizio Guzman’s award-winning documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, in part, narrates such a story. And it does so very poignantly. Guzman films this hour-long documentary in the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest place, where a few millimeters of rain falls every four or five years. It is here that some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are positioned from where astronomers peer into deep space.

Patricio Guzman juxtaposes the future, astronomy, with archaeology, a search for the past. The Atacama Desert was also the place where the ruthless Chilean dictator had killed thousands of people and buried them. In fact, after a few years of burying them, Pinochet had the earth overturned by bulldozers to erase any trace whatsoever. So, in the documentary, there are old women who search for their children, brothers, grandchildren. Someone finds a boot, through which they identify their loved ones, who are long dead. This is the way these old people have of seeking closure, of coming to terms with the past. The astronomer that Guzman interviews has very fascinating insights to provide.

“All of our life experiences, including this conversation, happened in the past. Even if it is a matter of millionths of a second.”

-Gaspar Galaz, astronomer in Nostalgia for the Light

The astronomer, Gaspar Galaz, points out to the filmmaker, Patricio Guzman that sunlight takes about eight minutes to reach us. He says, “the present doesn’t exist. It’s true. The only present that might exist is the one in my mind. It’s the closest we come to the absolute present.” So, from a strictly scientific standpoint, Guzman tells us that, as human beings, we essentially live in the past all the time. In that sense, the juxtaposition of the future and the past is not really a contradiction in the film.

Thinking about this from a philosophical point of view, it has tremendous ramifications for each one of us. As much as we dwell in the painful traumas of the past and do not seek closure, so much is our present weakened, so much would our future be controlled by the debilitating effects of what went by. This is how I look at resilience in its different ways. For me, these diverse stories of the character, Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, the story of Janine Shepherd and the healing of the past in Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light are equally stories of human resilience in its myriad forms.

Post a Comments


  1. Suresh Pant

    Awfully inspiring story (3-in-1), well written.
    What a quote: “…being at rock bottom is actually the perfect place to start”.

  2. Nick Maneck

    Professor Naqvi does it again. I was forced to revisit in my mind the reading of Ernest Hemingway’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘖𝘭𝘥 𝘔𝘢𝘯 & 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘦𝘢. Did I remember all the details Roomy cited in his column? Of course not. I had read that book many years ago. All I could remember is a frustrated and humiliated old man at long last the catching of the big fish. I remember only in a picture form Santiago’s efforts, trying to drag the big fish, which he caught with a small boat. By the time he is able to haul the huge fish tugged to his boat, the ravages of the sea had so destroyed his big catch that he had virtually nothing left of the fish for him to brag about his big catch.

    Being in age close to where Santiago might have been in Hemingway’s novel, I had to ask myself, did Santiago have nothing left to show for his life? That is not the impression I came away with at my first reading of the 𝑶𝒍𝒅 𝑴𝒂𝒏 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑺𝒆𝒂, nor do I now think that way about old age. Although I did not realize at the time of the first reading of that novel, somehow I was left with a sub conscious message of 𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙞𝙡𝙞𝙚𝙣𝙘𝙚. It does not amount in value more than a fruit fly’s wings, what others think about my accomplishments in my life. I know for a certainty, I may not have much to show for my life’s accomplishments, but I made progress in my life far more than any of my ancestors did. I also know, because of my examples there are others who interacted with me accomplished far more than what I did in my lifetime. Resilience to me, as a consequence of this reading Prof Naqvi’s column, is a multi generational attempt to carry forward an ever advancing civilization.

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