Excerpt from Road Map to Power (Husain & Husain): Lessons from Children
Lessons from Children
Rule of the Road: Forge your armor out of resiliency
Mile Markers: War Zone, Trauma, PTSD, Suicide, Dutch Levees, Bounce Back, Magical Thinking, Easy Temperament, Vulnerability, Consumer Nation, George Foreman, Mentoring, Open Communities, Persistence, Tree of Resiliency, Self-Evaluation, Exploitive Culture
In the days and months after that game-changing ride home from Bob, I began to ponder how I might go about amending my own life to better reflect the principles first emphasized in my youth and latter reinvigorated by the example of this modest soul. As someone who had firsthand experience with poverty and minimal assets, I was surprised at how quickly I had bought into the desire to demonstrate to outsiders that here was a man who exceeded his humble beginnings. Now that I was equipped with a new self-awareness, would this knowledge translate into real and lasting change? Temptation to buy and consume in an attempt to feed the appetite of my self-worth would always be in abundance. A thought slowly emerged and then became a drumbeat in my mind, “I’m going to need to develop some armor to protect myself from the army of merchants who hawk their products ensuring happiness and satisfaction.” What would be strong enough to withstand the multitudes of advertisements, sales pitches, peer pressures, and never-ending promises?
It would need to come from a material readily available in the landscape of humankind. It would be several years later and on one of my travels thousands of miles away that I would begin to put the pieces together. Finding this suitable substance, however, would prove to be more perilous than I expected.
There is at least one moment in every person’s life that (s)he wonders how (s)he got themselves into this predicament. One of my moments came when I found myself huddled inside the hull of a Russian military cargo plane wearing a flak jacket and clutching an army-grade helmet. Well into my 50s and flying into a war zone, the image of Jonah sitting in stunned silence inside the belly of a whale occupied my mind. When we landed at the United Nations-controlled airport, the reasons for the military plane, flak jacket, and helmet became clear: The runway was a pockmarked canvas of asphalt besieged by the daily shelling of a relentless adversary. The airport itself bore the markings of the blind destructiveness of war, most notably the piles of sandbags feebly filling the holes of blown-out walls. While the eyes were assaulted with pictures too chaotic to fully comprehend, it was the cacophony of noise that was most insulting to the senses. The sheer volume of the explosions, accompanied by the sound of mortar shells as they whistled through the air, nearly rendered me incapacitated. I was relieved to jump into an “Egyptian taxi” (provided by the Egyptian military contingency) just to escape the noise even though it was, statistically speaking, the most dangerous part of my passage.
The city streets, once bustling with the life of a thriving metropolis, were abandoned and silent. My driver apologized for the hurried and bumpy nature of his driving but expressed the importance of reaching our destination before nightfall. Once the sun set, the city would fall into complete darkness. Electricity was a rare luxury, and even if that were not the case, any artificial light simply illuminated targets for snipers. With the remaining glimmer of the day seeping through the tiny bulletproof window, I was able to witness the skeletal rows of houses, overturned cars and buses, and a stray dog with its ribs showing through the skin, sniffing purposefully through the rubble in search of food. Our own journey took us through what was known as Sniper Alley to the only operational hotel in town. This formerly lavish Holiday Inn served as a makeshift headquarters for journalistic activities as many major news networks had their reporters anchored there. The inside of the hotel greeted us with pitch blackness, and only through one hallway could I make out a dim glow shining through paper-covered glass. This room served as the guest registration office. Using a penlight, we slowly made our way through the hallway to where the clerk was waiting. Noting our reservation, she presented herself with the decorum of a concierge at the Ritz Carlton. Instead of highlighting the local attractions and the various dining options, however, she informed us that there currently was no electricity or running water in the hotel. She directed me to the stairway and warned that on the fifth level—where my room was located—there was a large hole in the flooring courtesy of a grenade explosion. She mentioned that the location of the rooms was worth the inconvenience of potentially falling through this hole since they offered a restricted city view. In a building often the recipient of artillery fire, a room without a view was a plus. As we parted ways for the night, she promised to send up four bottles of water for washing purposes in the morning. She implored me not to drink it.
Like most Americans, I knew little of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina before it declared independence from Yugoslavia in March of 1992. When the violence erupted shortly thereafter, I was one of millions across the world who watched in silent horror at the daily atrocities funneling through the television screen. Through a series of events combining chance and perhaps divine intervention described in more detail in a previous book, I found my life intertwined with those most devastated by this ethnically-charged civil war. Over the next three and a half years, I would travel to Bosnia 15 times. My principal mission, and that of my mental health team, was to work with the group most exploited and vulnerable when powerful adults fail to settle their differences peacefully: children. Fr
om my own early life experiences in Delhi and my work with traumatized children in the United States, I had a keen awareness of the problems I could expect to encounter among the Bosnian youth. No one, however, can ever be completely prepared for witnessing tragedy experienced by children. I encountered issues that I had only read about but never seen. Several of the young people’s growth had been physically stunted by the atrocities they had observed. One seven-year-old girl’s hair turned gray after her father was killed. Other symptoms included children who learned to fear the light instead of the dark. As I had learned at the hotel, light meant snipers could take aim and fire. Another boy would often rush into the basement of his house the middle of the night, confusing the snoring of his grandfather with the mortar fire engulfing the neighborhood.
Of the 791 Bosnian children our research team evaluated, 25% had been shot at by snipers and 71% had a family member who’d been killed. Seventy-seven percent reported trouble sleeping while a similar percentage replied in the affirmative to the statement, “I hate myself.” Most disturbingly, an astonishing 92% reported having thoughts of killing themselves compared to nine percent of their peers who had not been exposed to such extreme stress. This phenomenon is not just reserved for children or the people of Bosnia. In fact, the response to trauma is remarkably universal. The psychological impact of the 2004 tsunami that swept through Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, claiming the lives of 230,000 people, was nearly as devastating for the survivors. Those spared the towering walls of water were left with ruined homes, dead loved ones, and shattered dreams. Upwards of 39% of those exposed to the event suffered symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including difficulty sleeping, recurring nightmares, increased anxiety and depression, and thoughts of suicide. In the United States, reports of PTSD were also prevalent among those forced to carry on after such devastating disasters as the Oklahoma City bombings, the World Trade Center terrorist attack, and Hurricane Katrina.
Even the most highly trained and battle-tested cannot escape the horror that accompanies trauma. According to military statistics, as of September 5, 2014, 128,496 incident cases of PTSD have been reported in service members deployed since 2000. The actual number enduring this psychological disease is likely much larger, considering the stigma of weakness still attached to this malady. Because of the prevalence of PTSD and depression, the armed forces have seen a dramatic spike in suicides since the onset of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A report was released by the military in June of 2012 indicating that 154 servicemen and women had committed suicide in the previous five-month period versus 130 killed in combat during this same time. This finding means more U.S. troops died by their own hand than were killed by the enemy. It is becoming apparent that eroding mental health is a greater danger to our combat forces than any weapon deployed by our adversaries. These sad stories and overwhelming statistics, however, are not without hope. Within the core of many of these survivors is the quality of resiliency that allows them to recover and live normal, content lives. Resiliency’s root comes from the Latin resilíre, defined as “to leap back.” A person exhibiting resiliency possesses the ability to face and eventually overcome trauma and hardship.
While explaining the concept of resiliency in the various training workshops I have conducted worldwide, I often invoke the spirit of the Netherlands. The Dutch and their predecessors have been fighting a multi-millennium-old battle to curb the harmful effects of the bordering North Sea. Over this period of time, a series of increasingly sophisticated dikes have been built to keep the stormy seas at bay. Land that would otherwise be uninhabitable due to the whims of the North Sea now houses over 50% of the Netherlands’ population. In their web article, “Dikes of the Netherlands,” Marshall Brain and Robert Lamb have a passage that serves as a wonderful metaphor when discussing trauma and resiliency: “Much of the Dutch levee system relies on the understanding that levees require regular maintenance, constant monitoring, and a long-term appreciation for how rivers, oceans, and storms behave. When these are in place, communities can thrive safely alongside the beauty and convenience of coastal and riverside areas. It’s when we fail to remember this that rivers and oceans become destroyers.”
Appropriating this explanation as a metaphor for resiliency, the omnipresent North Sea represents the relentless forces of stress. The Dutch dikes and levees represent a person’s ability to manage and push back this stress. With the proper nurturing and support, these tools can be used to fortify one’s resiliency. With this resiliency, a healthy and satisfying life can be gained despite the barrage of trauma. If one takes for granted the destructive force of stress and trauma, he or she can be swept up in a tide of depression and despair.
In this vein, I found numerous testimonies to the power of resiliency among the children of Bosnia. Many whose physical development was stunted had attained normal growth once the daily stress subsided. The girl whose hair was permanently gray was thriving in school, and her fear of exploded shells had diminished. Therein lies the most remarkable characteristic of children—their astonishing capacity to bounce back. For many children, it takes very little, perhaps only some words of understanding, to help them tap into their ability to heal. I saw this resiliency again and again in Bosnia, emerging in the most unexpected circumstances, as flowers will emerge though cracks in a sidewalk.
One advantage that children have in the area of resiliency is the use of tools that would call into question one’s sanity if an adult were to employ a similar strategy. One of these tools is magical thinking. Magical thinking is a term that describes children’s belief that their wishes and thoughts can control reality. Some of the 7 to 10-year-old boys I came across in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo provided a textbook example. These children had become experts on artillery. Exposed to the various sounds of the guns used by snipers and soldiers, they could differentiate the make, size, and location of each gun. Most of these weapons were tucked into the surrounding hills of Borije, Poljne, Trebevic, Vraca, Jeverjesko Groblje, and Zuc. Nicknames emerged that originated from the gun’s locale. When they heard the retort of a particular cannon, they would say to each other, “Oh, that one’s Poli (from Poljine); he can’t get us here.” As they became experts at this game, it allowed them a feeling of control over their lives and helped reduce the negative psychological impact of living in fear.
Play is also a natural way to express fear and work out problems during childhood. Much of a child’s healing process occurs through play. I would observe the Bosnian children in schoolyards acting out scenes from the war around them. Sometimes, they pretended to be soldiers, including brothers and uncles, liberating their city. Regardless of the circumstances, they were always brave, either “winning” or successfully escaping dangerous situations. At one school, we watched two groups of children acting out the sniper attacks from days before. One child play-acted that he had been wounded by a sniper. Two other children took on the role of doctor, swiftly addressing the victim’s wounds, and carrying him to safety.
These plays allowed the children of Bosnia to express their anxiety and elicit some control over extraordinary events. Unfortunately, while their stories on the playground always culminated in a happy ending, their real lives were often not as kind. Thankfully, many of the Bosnian children, now young adults, have bright prospects and may even be stronger because of the experience. To say all will do so, however, paints too rosy a picture and glosses over significant details. Not all of the young people I had the privilege to meet were able or will be able to return to some semblance of normalcy.
This fact is a reflection of all our experiences. We know people thrown in their path. They may experience moments of feeling down, but these emotions are temporary as their recovery fully takes hold. Then, there are those who seemingly never shake the burdens of life as if their feet are stuck in quicksand. In distinguishing between these two categories of people, the level of developed resiliency serves as the tipping point for failure and success. Cultivated properly, resiliency becomes the armor worn by an individual to withstand the most challenging of life’s devices. So, if this “armor,” found in abundance as part of the natural core of the children of Bosnia, was strong enough to allow them to endure the longest siege in human history, then couldn’t this human quality be harnessed for other purposes? I was beginning to see the importance of mining this core resiliency to enact the necessary change in my life and that of the 99% attempting to reclaim their own personal power. Couldn’t this be the source to shield us from the feelings of inferiority, the urge to socially compare, and the compulsion to spend that are omnipresent in a consumer culture?
Like many human characteristics, the seeds of resiliency are planted in early childhood. To be precise, one’s predisposition to be resilient starts at conception. The groundbreaking research of child psychiatrist Stella Chess and her colleagues47 examined the traits children are born with and how they begin to interact with the new world surrounding them. She and her associates then followed these infants as they grew into adolescents and young adults. Based on her study, Chess was able to discern nine characteristic categories known as temperaments exhibited by the infants.
To learn what these nine characteristics are and read the rest of the chapter, you are encouraged to read the book. One chapter out of context is less helpful than cover to cover reading in the case of this particular book. The book is available in paperback and hard cover online, at retail, and in kindle formats
The book is available in paperback and hard cover online, at retail, and in kindle formats. One source is Amazon: HERE.
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(image from Children and Teens Medical Center)