Once you embark upon it, you must be prepared for a life-changing impact. Perspectives are skewed. $100 running shoes, refrigerators and paved roads take on new status as luxury items, not necessities. You will come back to North America wondering what we’re all whining about here. Yes, a trip to Africa does just what we’re afraid of. It makes us uncomfortable with our own expectations for a life of comfort and ease.
Experiencing life in Zambia made me increasingly aware of the disparity between our “have” culture and the “have not” cultures existing there. Through the media we have thankfully been made aware of the difficulties so many people have experienced in recent decades in Africa – the HIV crisis, poverty, political unrest, corruption and indescribable adversities. The implications of the violence, abuse and poverty confront us with the need to be personally involved, impacting our world for good.
There are aspects of African life that are not readily apparent at first exposure. These are the lessons to be learned about resilience to adversity – resilience observed through individual reactions to extreme difficulty. I observed Zambians making daily choices to be grateful for small things, being determined to hold positive expectations for the future or even being focused on helping others despite not having enough to meet their own basic survival needs.
These observations led to a number of conclusions:
- Firstly, BIG joy can be fostered with little bits of gratefulness
- When moments of joy do come, you need to make the most of them, because you just don’t know when an opportunity to celebrate may come again
- Creativity can make up for lack of technology or almost anything else one feels one must have to survive
- And finally, even the harshest of adversities can be overcome with supportive relationships, a sense of purpose in life and perseverance. These are things that foster resilience in hostile circumstances.
In recent research, positive emotions are found to increase creativity, build personal resources for coping and enable one to take new perspectives of old problems (Isen 2003). Barbara Fredrickson takes this concept one step further in her “Broaden and Build” model by suggesting that “cultivated positive emotions not only counteract negative emotions but also broaden individuals’ habitual modes of thinking; thus building their personal resources for coping” (1998, p.1). Does this mean whining is out?
The concept was enlivened for me with the experience of a torrential rainstorm in Kitwe. A group of women from the community were gathered for a meeting in a tin-roofed church close to the village. The sounds of any speaking were suddenly drowned out by the tumultuous thundering of rain on the roof. Instead of cancelling the meeting and sending away children who came inside to escape the rain, the women began to sing and dance, forming a line and waving in and around internal structures, creating a spontaneous celebration. Their reaction to the problem redefined it.
Each one of us is faced with choices on how to respond to everyday difficulties in life. Some of us are faced with larger adversities, which can potentially drain us of the strength and the motivation needed to continue on. We can choose our reactions: withdraw in resignation to our fate or choose to persevere with help from friends and family. This involves being grateful for small things along the way and remembering that each of us has a mandate to use our abilities to make an impact for good wherever we are. If there was one lesson the Zambians taught me – it was this; a life of self-absorption is no guarantee of satisfaction and correspondingly, a life of apparent deprivation and tragedy does not limit our capacity to bounce back to a life of joyful meaning.
Fredrickon, B. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Isen, A.S. (2003) Positive affect as a source of human strength. In G.L. Aspinwall and U.M. Studinger (Eds). A psychology of human strengths: Fundamental questions and future directions for a positive psychology. Washing, DC: American Psychological Association.