I believe Charles Darwin was on to something when he postulated the theory of natural selection. My belief is a less scientific, but, I believe, equally concrete slant of “survival of the fittest.”
Relativism aside, the axiom dwindles to one word—“survival.” This is human nature. This is nature, in the raw—unadulterated, unabashed, unrelenting.
I believe in human resilience. I believe that, on the most basic level, life, uncluttered by societal institutions, systems, mores, traditions, and ceremonies, is about survival. And I believe that, in this regard, humans have mastered the art of living.
Resilience is universal trait. It breaks geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers.
Amidst the frenzy of the Age of Discovery, colonialists, imperialists, missionaries, conquistadors—all opportunists in their own right—justified slavery by claiming that the resultant degradation was merely born of a natural inferiority of the enslaved. For example, Europeans claimed that Black brutes were justly consigned to manual labor because their physical abilities grossly outweighed their intellectual faculties.
A sojourn even more kin to posterity shares a similarly dark history with the Black Diaspora.
Biblical records illustrate the journey of the Jews, detailing harrowing trials and unfathomable persecution. Slaves of the Egyptians, captives of the Babylonians, victims of the Holocaust, Jews have the threads of misery and maltreatment sewn in their past.
But what two groups, as unlike in appearance as in culture, separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, have in common, is what all humans have in common. Through their efforts, their stories both changed—for the better.
Slavery, at least in name, is almost unknown in the world. The black race makes strides everyday in Europe, North America, South America, and Africa. Jews now occupy Israel and have established flourishing communities in several other countries.
Resilience is also a latent seed. It is repressible, it is concealable, but it is ultimately indestructible.
Many of the most influential people in the United States have been sons and daughters of immigrants—“first generationers.” Immigrants and their descendants have shaped America because they have been driven. They have left countries void of opportunity, void of hope, and yet the sight of America has been the water that brought to life the seed of resilience.
Stories of Irishmen, Chinese, Mexicans, working their way through a class barrier is common in America for a reason. The story of the children of those immigrants completing a secondary education, finishing college, attending graduate school, obtaining lucrative jobs, is common for the same reason. Humans are resilient and often only need a faint glimpse of the summit to climb the mountain.
Resilience is an ambivalent reminder of life’s sick irony.
Lagos, Nigeria, holding more than its share of Nigeria’s 140 million teeming masses, is a muddled mess. A ghetto within a ghetto, surrounded by ghettos, connected to more ghettos, built on the ruin of old ghettos, deteriorating to give way to even more ghettoes. But, as New Yorker columnist George Packer reports, life still goes on.
“ ‘Welcome to Lagos…Nobody will care for you, and you have to struggle to survive.’ It is the singular truth awaiting the six hundred thousand people who pour into Lagos from West Africa every year. Their lungs will burn with smoke and exhaust; their eyes will sting; their skin will turn charcoal gray. And hardly any of them will ever leave.” (Nov. 13 2006 New Yorker, 64)
Local market women balancing baskets of blackened fruit and bags of grain on their heads, thirty year-old men with gray hair, and tired eyes, picking up scraps of plastic at a local landfill—these are the images of resilience, a stubborn will to survive.
But there is something else in the city. Something hidden amongst the shadows of large, air-conditioned, landscaped compounds, occupied by politicians. Something tucked between the lines of news articles about elections in Africa. It is another sort of resilience. An equally stubborn persistence— to maintain power, to keep the oppressed in their place, struggling for the scraps. For years, this resilience silenced protestors of apartheid in South Africa and survived daring coups in Latin America. This resilience is a formidable presence.
If life is about survival, then I believe that there is a constant struggle between the two faces of resilience. And, with resignation, I realize that this struggle will rage on as long as humans exist.
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