Inspiration: Some Thoughts on Resilience

Justus Uwayesu is a freshman at Harvard. “So what?” you say. Just another smart young man headed for a successful future. What is so unusual about that?

But Mr. Uwaysu is more unusual than the average 22 year old. Orphaned at age three when his parents, illiterate farmers, were killed in the Rwandan genocide that exterminated 800,000 people in 100 days, he was living in a burned out car in a garbage dump at the age of nine.  He scavenged and begged for food during the day, had not bathed in over a year, and feared tigers at night in the dump. He was called “nayibobo,” forgotten child, by other children who saw him on the streets when they were returning to their homes after school.

Claire Effiong, an American charity worker for Esther’s Aid, had gone to the dump because she knew orphans lived there and she hoped to rescue some of them. Most scattered in fear when she arrived. Justus did not run, and when asked what he wanted, this child who had little food and no home said he wanted to go to school.

Through the charity, he was housed and educated, staying at the top of his class from first grade until graduation. He founded a youth charity and ran his school’s student tutoring program. Now he is a student at one of our most competitive universities.  Michael Wine, the author of the article about Mr. Uwayesu in the New York Times, called him an example of the “potential buried even in humanity’s most hopeless haunts.”

Certainly Mr. Wine’s article was moving and inspirational. However, it touched me for another reason. Recently, I gave a talk to an audience of parents and teachers on resilience, the ability to bounce back, to handle life’s daily challenges, and to overcome adversity. I discussed the five factors that are important to develop resilience: connection to others, communication, confidence, competence and commitment, and control. And I recommended the things that could be done to help children and teens develop resilience – things like taking risks (appropriate to their age, of course), making decisions, dealing with conflicts, doing their own homework, making mistakes and learning from them, finishing what they start, believing that they can influence the outcome of events, and other factors.

After the talk, I heard from a lot of parents in person and on line. They were worried that if they did not do their kids homework, did not correct their mistakes before the teacher saw them, did not solve their interpersonal problems, and did not make their decisions for them, their lives would be a mess. I tried hard to convince them that the time for children to take chances and learn, to know they were loved anyway, was while they were still in the bosom of their family.

Although some children are more resilient from birth, for most, resilience doesn’t just happen. It is developed through the experiences they have. If parents do all the work, children learn that their parents are very competent. But for kids to feel competent, have confidence, and believe that they can influence their environment, they have to do things themselves.

I am not suggesting that all kids should live in a burned out car and scavenge for food, nor do I think that every child living in those horrible circumstances has the resilience, or grit, of Justus Uwayesu. But most of the children in our communities today have an abundance of opportunity – to learn, to enjoy, and to grow. Life will present challenges for them at every age – some of them just daily bumps, others true adversity – so I want them to have the skills and resilience to stand strong on their journey.